Remember when tennis was considered a precious game played by the cardigan set at country clubs and on barbered lawns? Rafael Nadal broke that mold when he cracked the sport’s top ten as a teenager, all muscle tanks and long hair. Next week, at the improbable age of 33, he enters the Australian Open as the world’s number one-ranked player, adding to his case as the greatest player of all time. But Nadal doesn’t play tennis so much as he works it, blistering the ball with annihilating force, lacing it with somersaulting topspin, and imposing his will on the opponent. His relentless approach is strikingly effective and strikingly at odds with the vibe on the Spanish island where he was born, lives now and vows never to leave. Nadal invited us to his hometown last month during what passes for an off-season in tennis, five weeks most players use to rest up before the start of a new season.
Most players, but not Rafa Nadal. We found him blasting away at practice every morning, deploying his lefty forehand and double-fisted backhand. Every bit as dialed in as he is during his matches. Such is his intensity, Nadal requires two sparring partners. His main coach, Carlos Moya, was once the world’s number-one-ranked player himself and even he struggled.
“That was easy,” Nadal joked.
Full disclosure: I’ve covered Nadal for 15 years on the pro tennis tour but this was our first extended on-camera interview. He’s fluent in English but expresses himself more freely in Spanish.
Jon Wertheim: You are not laidback when you play tennis.
Rafael Nadal (Translation): No. I think I’m a very intense person with a lot of energy. I live life and sports at maximum intensity. This is how I feel it.
In 2019, the world felt it, perhaps the best six-month stretch of Nadal’s career, even by his dizzyingly high standards. In June, he won the French Open, of course he did. It was his 12th title on the red clay of Paris, more than any player in history has won any major.
In September, in New York, he reeled off the shot of the year. Not over the net, but around it – and yes, this is legal – on his way to winning the U.S. Open for a fourth time.
By the time he carried Spain to a Davis Cup title, he was already number one in the world, his fifth turn closing out the season on top. As one observer put it: “Even at this stage of his career, Nadal plays like he’s broke.”
So, what hard-charging corner of Spain, what hive of cutthroat ambition, would produce this kind of ruthless competitor? Actually, it’s Mallorca, the largest of Spain’s Balearic islands. A patchwork of turquoise coves, mountain ranges, rolling meadows, Mallorca floats comfortably in the Mediterranean. Think of it as something akin to a tennis ball Spain volleyed in the direction of Italy. The usual historical suspects, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors, all left their mark here.
Jon Wertheim: How many generations of Nadals have been on this island?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): Many. Quite a few.
Jon Wertheim: What is it like to you coming back to Mallorca after spending time on the road?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): For me, coming back to Mallorca means coming back to a normal life. And normal life makes me happy. I’m not just Rafa Nadal, the tennis player. I become Rafa Nadal the human being again.
Nadal is so attached to the place, that when floods ravaged Mallorca in 2018, he put down his racket, grabbed a broom and became just another volunteer. The island raised him. So too did his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, three generations of Nadals living together – quite literally on top of each other – in an apartment block in the small town of Manacor. His uncle, Miguel Ángel, played professional soccer and gave Rafa his first glimpse of life under stadium lights.
Rafael Nadal (Translation): He always managed to have a peaceful, normal life – close to his family. And for me, that was a very good example.
But it was another uncle – Toni Nadal, then a local tennis instructor – who recognized Rafa’s talent.
Toni Nadal (Translation): Normally, when you throw the ball to most kids, they wait for the ball to come to them…but when he was three years old, he went straight for it. There were no perks to being the instructor’s nephew – quite the opposite. Toni singled him out, making him pick up balls and sweep the court after practice.
Jon Wertheim: How hard were you on him?
Toni Nadal: I was hard.
Jon Wertheim: You were?
Toni Nadal: I wanted to prepare my nephew for the future. And I thought the future will be very difficult.
Jon Wertheim: You say you were tough. Were you too tough?
Toni Nadal: Sometimes.
Still, it was out of the question that Rafa would leave home – and his uncle’s coaching – to attend an academy. To this day, the Nadal family operates as a tightly knit clan. They attend Rafa’s big matches together; they toast his successes together.
And they had cause to celebrate right from the start. Nadal was an instant phenom. In 2005, the week he turned 19, he won his first French Open. His stubborn refusal to surrender and the spin he can generate with a flick of the wrist have always made him near unbeatable on clay courts. And yet, the signature moment of Nadal’s entire career came on grass… Wimbledon.
In 2007, Nadal was close to dethroning the sport’s reigning king, Roger Federer, to win the tournament for the first time. But then, in keeping with an unfortunate theme of Nadal’s career, his body betrayed him, a knee injury this time.
Jon Wertheim: Do you remember how low you were after that 2007 Wimbledon Final?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): I was sad and I was angry with myself. Because I wasn’t able to endure mentally the pain, the suffering, and the tension.
Nadal got another shot the following year, in what’s been called the greatest match ever played. He pulled ahead early but Federer stormed back. During a rain delay, Rafa conferred with his uncle.
Toni Nadal (Translation): I’m telling you, at that point, I thought that Rafael was more likely to lose than to win. And then he looked up at me and said, “Relax, I’m not going to lose this match.” “Maybe Federer will win, but I’m not going to lose.” Wimbledon 2008 announcer: There’s a new man at the helm of men’s tennis: Rafael Nadal!
Rafael Nadal (Translation): Winning Wimbledon was a dream. And beating Roger, and the way I won. It’s something I will never forget.
Nadal didn’t just overcome Federer, he confronted another persistent nemesis: the doubt in his head.
Jon Wertheim: You once said to me, ‘If I don’t feel doubt, I’m gonna be in trouble. Doubt is very important to my success.’ What do you mean by that?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): If you don’t have doubt, it probably means that you’re being arrogant.
Jon Wertheim: Most athletes might think the exact opposite, that doubts are bad. You’re saying doubts are almost a power, a strength.
Rafael Nadal (Translation): I think so, yes. I think it’s good for me, because then I feel alert. Because tennis is a sport where things can change very quickly. That’s the great beauty of our sport.
A great beauty of Nadal, for all his focus and aggression, he’s also unfailingly sporting, which sometimes distinguishes him from colleagues.
Jon Wertheim: You haven’t broken too many rackets in competition have you? (laugh) How many? Do you know the total?
Rafael Nadal: Yes, si.
Jon Wertheim: What is it?
Rafael Nadal: Zero.
Jon Wertheim: Zero. Never broken a racket?
Rafael Nadal: Uh-uh. (negative)
Jon Wertheim: What is that about?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): My family, they wouldn’t have allowed me to break a racket. For me, breaking a racket means I’m not in control of my emotions.
In full control of his emotions, at least until the last point, he’s amassed 19 Majors, only one behind Roger Federer’s record of 20. But in this unrivaled sports rivalry, Nadal leads the head-to-head matchups 24-16.
Jon Wertheim: You ever done a long interview and not been asked about Roger Federer? Does it bother you?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): No, I’d be delighted.
Jon Wertheim: A rival, a colleague, a friend – what is your relationship?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): I think it’s a little bit of everything. We’ve had a very intense rivalry throughout our careers, but it’s been a very healthy rivalry. An elegant, respectful rivalry. We have also reached a stage in our lives where we are able to appreciate that it’s not just about winning.
Nadal did admit to being jealous of Federer in one respect.
Jon Wertheim: Do you ever envy the health of your rivals?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): (laugh) Yes. Sometimes I do. It’s true that my rivals have faced fewer injuries than I have had to face.
Jon Wertheim: One of the theories with your injuries is that you practice and play with so much intensity that it takes a physical price – is that something you agree with?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): No, or I don’t know. I was told that for many years, I was told that because of the way I play, I would never have a very long career. But, hey, I’m still here…
For this, the final set of Nadal’s career, Uncle Toni has stepped aside and Rafa has a new voice in his ear. Carlos Moya is, naturally, a fellow Mallorcan.
Jon Wertheim: What percent of his intensity did you have when you were a player?
Carlos Moya: 10%. (laughs)
Jon Wertheim: 10% as intense as Rafa Nadal?
Carlos Moya: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim: And yet you come from the same place?
Carlos Moya: Yeah, he’s the different one, not me. Here in Mallorca, we are like this.
Jon Wertheim: He’s the exception?
Carlos Moya: Yeah, he’s the exception. Yeah.
Nadal turned his sleepy hometown of Manacor into a worldwide tennis destination. The Rafa Nadal Academy is a sprawling complex for enthusiasts and aspiring pros. When we asked Nadal if he ever considered moving his operation, as if to emphasize the point, he switched to English to answer.
Rafael Nadal: Honestly not. A lot of people does. Because of taxes.
Jon Wertheim: Not for you?
Rafael Nadal: For me it was difficult to take that decision because I have all of the people that I love here. And I will win much more money if I move to another place but moving to another place if I am not happy could be very, very expensive.
Last October, Nadal married his longtime girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perelló. Yup, she’s Mallorcan, too. She helps run Nadal’s charitable foundation and tends to avoid the public eye, though we found them together one night hosting a group of donors.
Donor: How did you ask her to marry you?
Rafael Nadal: After 15 years, you don’t need to talk much. Just, what do we have to do? (laughs)
Maria Francisca: Yes, or not?
Rafael Nadal: Well, here we are…
Nadal took us to a plot of land he bought recently where he and his wife will eventually break ground on a new family home. He told us he’d planned to have kids by now; then again he also thought he’d be off the tour by now.
Rafael Nadal: This is the Port of Manacor. My parents living there.
Jon Wertheim: Oh your parents live across the bay?
Rafael Nadal: Yeah, other side. Yeah, it’s good, because I have the boat very close, too, very close. So that helps, because —
Jon Wertheim: Oh you keep a boat here?
Rafael Nadal: Yeah. Yeah. So, in three minutes, I am in the boat.
Jon Wertheim: Three minutes you’re in the boat, and you’re out– out in the Mediterranean fishing–
Rafael Nadal: Exactly. (LAUGH)
Only one problem with this spot.
Rafael Nadal: The problem here is the kids during the summer, they go there – they jump. Because there is nobody in the house, they come up and they come back. They come from inside the property.
Jon Wertheim: This is a hangout for Mallorca because Rafa is away playing tennis so why don’t we go out to his property and jump off his cliff.
Rafael Nadal: Yeah, that’s true.
Jon Wertheim: Have you jumped off that?
Rafael Nadal: Yeah.
Jon Wertheim: Yeah?
Rafael Nadal: A couple of times.
Maybe it was the effects of being back home. Maybe it’s because he is back on top. But we found Rafael Nadal ready to take the measure of his entire, surpassing career.
Jon Wertheim: You’ve had some incredible victories and you’ve had some gutting losses. What is more intense? The joy of winning or the pain of losing?
Rafael Nadal (Translation): Depends on the moment. Unfortunately, in life more often, we remember the negative things because they have a greater impact on us. In tennis, it’s a little different, no? I think over my career that I have been happier with my victories than I have been upset with my defeats. I think.
Produced by Nathalie Sommer. Associate producer, Vanessa Fica. Broadcast associate, Cristina Gallotto. Edited by April Wilson. Assistant editor, Aisha Crespo.