After studying the exotic wildlife of the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin surmised that animals can develop unique traits when they evolve in isolation. In the tennis world, Rafael Nadal is such an animal. Based on the island of Majorca, Nadal and his family shunned mainstream training programs as he grew up, preferring the more homespun methods of Rafael's uncle Toni, whose tennis credentials consist of a brief stint competing on the national circuit. Passing up funding from Spain's national tennis academy, and scholarship money from America's private academies, Rafael and Toni would travel to the mainland only when a tournament required it. More skillful opponents were viewed as problems to overcome, not exemplars to be mimicked. Nadal who first picked up a racquet aged 3 and his coach found their own solutions, developing a style of play concerned less with form and technique than with results. What matters is winning. Or as Nadal puts it, "I've always liked the competition more than the tennis."
Whatever; it's worked. The approach ultimately produced an unorthodox, physical and devastatingly effective game that has taken Nadal, 22, to the top of men's tennis. In 2008, he recorded one of the sport's most successful seasons, becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win on the slow clay of Roland Garros in Paris and the slick grass of Wimbledon in the same year, while also picking up an Olympic gold and the ATP's top ranking. Given all that, you might expect Nadal to stick with what's working. But he and, most especially, his coach can't help themselves. Having proved that Nadal's unique style can beat any player in the world, Toni has been quietly picking apart Nadal's game, remaking it shot by shot so that the Spaniard plays not less classically but more classically. As Nadal prepares for this year's first grand slam event, in Australia beginning Jan. 19, the top seed and his coach seem to be posing a new challenge: Can tennis's great outsider win by embracing normal? (See pictures of an alternative look at Wimbledon.)
All athletes develop their own mix of style and technique. But Nadal's peculiarity is quantifiable. San Francisco–based tennis researcher John Yandell has used video-capture technology to record the topspin of Nadal's forehand. He found that Nadal's shot rotates at an average of 3,200 times a minute. Andre Agassi, one of the game's great shotmakers, generated 1,900 rotations per minute in his prime, and current world No. 2 Roger Federer, whose forehand is considered among the game's best, generates 2,700. As U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe has said of Nadal, "His normal safe forehand is the toughest shot in the world."
That forehand is the central component of a style that tennis experts call "counter-punching." It's one that absorbs an opponent's attacking play with aggressive returns, and springs from Nadal and his uncle's contrarian instincts. Nadal is naturally right-handed. But early on, Toni decided his protégé should play with his left hand to impart unusual southpaw spin. Toni then encouraged, or perhaps failed to correct, the extreme grip Nadal uses, and the unusual way he swings his racquet. To this day, instead of using the forward momentum of his body to generate pace on his forehand as the training manuals recommend, Nadal falls backward from the net on his forehand, whipping his racquet behind his head instead of across his body. This movement results in looping shots that keep an opponent heaving balls back, often on the run, in a nightmare from which only an error provides release. Rallying with Nadal, says former Top 10 player turned coach Brad Gilbert, "is an education in pain."
It's a pain Nadal applied indiscriminately last year, even against Federer, who may just be the greatest player of all time. The Spaniard's rise to No. 1 ended a five-year period in which Federer's free-flowing and artistic play came as close as humanly possible to achieving perfection within the boxed constraints of a tennis court. Since his first French Open victory in 2005, Nadal's more muscular game has consistently overcome the Swiss star on Nadal's favorite surface clay. But in 2008, Nadal came out on top in four meetings, including an epic five-set Wimbledon final that dethroned the grass-court champion in one of the greatest matches ever played. More than any other, that match in which Nadal seized control early on and slowly squeezed the air out of Federer, even as the Swiss player thrashed out a brave but doomed comeback summed up Nadal's unique brand of tennis: protracted but certain in its path to victory.
Nadal's exoticism on the tennis court stands in contrast to the conventional life he lives off it. The son of a prosperous family his father, Sebastian, runs a successful window company, another uncle was a star soccer defender for Barcelona and Spain Nadal retains the earnest good manners of a middle-class Spaniard. Rebellious in his fist-pumping, swashbuckling play, he dresses smartly for social occasions. He lists his hobbies as golf, fishing and video games, and follows his uncle's rule that he carry his own bags and racquets when at tournaments. He still lives with his parents. His girlfriend, 20-year-old Maria Francisca Perello, is a student in Majorca whom Nadal met through family friends. "People see Nadal as some sort of rebel, but he's really just a normal guy, a normal Spaniard. He likes normal things and he lives a normal life," says his publicist Benito Perez-Barbadillo. Or, as Nadal puts it, "I'm happy all the time. But I'm most happy at home."
The Weakness in Power
Nadal may be a simple guy off the court, but he has found himself cast as a villain on it. Tennis purists have long bleated that his jarring, defensive game is less pleasing to watch and less effective than Federer's fluid style. Recently, though, the game's élite have started to come around. Swedish great Stefan Edberg has declared Nadal "unbeatable" by today's professionals, and Pete Sampras told reporters on Dec. 2 it may be Nadal, not Federer, who breaks his career-defining record of 14 major championships (Nadal has 5; Federer, five years older, has 13).
But there is a caveat. Can someone with such a high-intensity game last long enough to break all the records? Tennis players' longevity varies depending on their style of play. As points and matches lengthen, careers often shorten. Nadal and his coterie of physical trainers know that the flip side of his heavy topspin is that it forces him to engage in bruising rallies. His muscle-bound physique which Nadal says is down to genes rather than weight-lifting adds an extra burden: the explosive forces those muscles generate put his body under increased strain.