Rafael Nadal is on course to be the greatest player in the history of the tennis. The 25-year-old Spanish wonder just won his sixth French Open, racking up another Grand Slam title for a total of 10. He also helped snag the Davis Cup – twice – for the Spanish team, and brought home an Olympic gold medal from Beijing in 2008.
Introduced to the game as a toddler, Nadal has been winning ever since. Here’s what keeps him going.
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Staying Passionate: Former tennis world champion Mats Wilander says one of Nadal’s strengths is that, even though he’s number one, he keeps changing his game, keeping it fresh and keeping his opponents guessing. That’s because the game still thrills him as it did as a child. “It is still exciting and I still get nervous these days!” Nadal says.
Rolling with the Punches: Tennis has not always been easy on Nadal. He’s suffered a string of injuries over the years, some of which forced him out of major competitions. “His heart is too hungry to let his body get in the way,” Wilander says. “Sometimes he oversteps his boundaries.” But he always gets back in the game. A 2004 injury caused him to miss the French Open. No worries. He won the next five.
Taking It Easy: Nadal says that he doesn’t stress much about tennis – “In the end, it’s only a game,” he insists – but he makes a point to enjoy life off the court. Sometimes that means sequestering himself in his room with a video. Other times he’s sightseeing, playing golf, or at a restaurant – his favorites are Spanish, of course – with his friends. “Spanish food, I think, is the best,” he says.
Being a Family Man: On his way to number one, Nadal has never been alone. He has always had the support of his family, in particular, his uncle Toni Nadal, who has been his coach since he first put a racquet in the young Rafa’s hands. “My Uncle Toni loved the sport of tennis, and he is the one who showed me about the sport and transmitted to me that passion for the game and the respect,” Nadal says.
Watching What He Eats: Nadal’s been known to dip into the Nutella jar from time to time, and he admits to a soft spot for French fries. The foods he favors, though, are healthy, simply prepared dishes like grilled fish with pasta and vegetables. He may allow himself the occasional junk food, but he has set strict rules for himself: “I eat them when I am not close to a match and never abuse any of those.”
Making Sacrifices: The demands the game placed on him as a child meant missing out on a normal boyhood – little time with friends, few parties, lost weekends. But he has no regrets. “Yes, sure, I did make some sacrifices that we all know you have to make,” he says, “but I did what I liked, so no real sacrifices.” As if doing what he likes were not reward enough, his passion has taken him to the top of the game. “Overall, he’s the best right now,” Wilander says, “and if he keeps playing as well as he does now, in four or five years he’s going to be considered the greatest player of all time.”