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Tymon Smith Speaks to John Carlin About Rafa: My Story

By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times:

How did you come to write this book?

Nadal’s people approached me about a year or so ago. My qualification for the job was probably the fact that I speak English and Spanish, apart from anything else.

How long did it take you to write and how many interviews did you do?

I did this project in five months from start to finish. I began at the beginning of January this year and finished at the end of May. I spent the month of January furiously talking to him and the people close to him. I went with him to Qatar and to Australia and we just grabbed every possible moment on the plane and in the hotel room. I also spoke to his father, his mother, his brother, his uncles, his sister, every member of his team – his physio, his physical trainer, his agent, his old friends from school.

Were you concerned that Nadal was a bit young to be the subject of a biography?

He is very young, but I would argue that at the age of 25 he’s lived life more intensely and had more extraordinary experiences than most people have in four lifetimes.

Was there anything he wasn’t comfortable talking about?

He wasn’t comfortable talking about his parents’ separation. That’s a very important thing to him, because his family is so important to him. He builds this wall to protect himself from the outside world and to focus on the world of tennis and the cement of that wall is family. The centrality of his family is demonstrated by his reaction to his parents’ separation – he really had an awful year in 2009. He was very uncomfortable talking about it and we spoke about it the bare minimum because he just didn’t want to go there.

How did you come up with the structure of the book?

I structured the first two-thirds of the book around the 2008 Wimbledon final (against Roger Federer). Starting off with the beginning of the first set then going back to his life until he was five then starting the next set.

I thought it would be very interesting to try and get into Rafa’s head during what had been the most intense and dramatic game of his life and, by many accounts, the most intense and dramatic and best game of tennis ever. So Rafa and I watched the entire match together and he went through, almost blow-by-blow, what he was thinking and I thought that would be a way of giving the book a narrative thread and suspense.

Do you think that Nadal was destined to be a tennis player?

It was an accident of destiny that led him to play tennis. Had it not been for the fact that his uncle had failed as a professional tennis player and then gone home to coach little kids in a club across the road from where Rafa was, it’s unlikely that Rafa ever would have taken up tennis. He much more likely would have been a football player. And he probably would have been damn good – I wouldn’t be surprised if he had it in him to become a professional, but his destiny was cut short by the appearance of Uncle Toni. I think there was an extraordinary desire to win, an extraordinary competitive streak which, in turn, translates into discipline and commitment in training. And I think that whatever the mystery of his personality is, that’s the core of the whole thing more than anything else.

To what extent is his family part of his success?

It is an amazingly tight family. I live in Spain and I know that Mediterranean culture where you have very tight families, but even in my experience of Spain, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

There’s a period of 10 years when Nadal’s father’s brothers and sisters all lived in the same apartment block along with their parents, and you had five brothers and sisters along with mom and dad all living in a building in the centre of town, which had four or five floors, and they colonised the entire place.

In the end, in a certain sense, the player you see is not just Rafa Nadal, it’s the son of the extended family and they all feel his triumphs and his victories as their own to the extent that they don’t even congratulate each other, or even him, because to do so would be immodest. The whole thing is taken to extraordinary, almost impersonal levels.

Having spent so much time with him, what do you think it is that makes Nadal the player he is?

Look at Novak Djokovic, who has been beating him this year and hopefully will not continue to beat him next year. Djokovic is a guy who was always spectacularly naturally talented, but he didn’t really have his head in order, he didn’t have a stable team around him, he didn’t really have a fixed coach and in the course of the last year or so he’s acquired precisely those elements. And he now has a much more stable group of people around him and he’s got his head in order.

Nadal has always had that and Djokovic has copied Nadal, in my view. Nadal has also got this extraordinary capacity for concentration. As his physical trainer says, tennis is a game of emergencies where you have to take extraordinary, fast decisions under extreme stress all the time over a period of three or four hours and that requires a lot of mental clarity and lucidity, and Nadal has that.

Beyond the court, he also has a clear understanding of just how brief his time on this Earth as a successful sportsperson is going to be and that you can’t afford to squander that time and you have to invest everything to maximise your talent.

How much longer do you think Nadal has in professional tennis?

There is a kind of Achilles syndrome here. It could be that something snaps, like, for example the bone in his foot – his Achilles metatarsal bone.

That’s another thing that gives him his sense of urgency. But let’s assume that he manages to avoid serious injury – I would guess he’s got about five years more. It’s difficult to imagine that, given the physical pounding he gives himself, he’d be able to continue much beyond that.

Facts

Rafael Nadal was born on June 3 1986. Nicknamed the King of Clay, he is considered by many as the greatest clay court tennis player of all time. He has won 10 major singles titles, including six French Open titles.

He became the seventh player in history and the youngest in the open era to complete a Grand Slam, winning the Australian Open (2009), the French Open (2005), Wimbledon (2008), and, finally, the US Open in 2010.

He is also only the second male player after Andre Agassi to complete a Career Golden Slam – all four Grand Slams as well as the Olympic Gold medal.

In 2008 Nadal had a 32-match winning streak which included victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final in the longest – and what was regarded by many as the greatest ever – final of the tournament. Nadal eventually won the match with a 9-7 fifth set victory, ending Federer’s record streak of five consecutive Wimbledon titles and 65 straight wins on grass courts.

After being ranked world No 2 for a record 160 consecutive weeks, Nadal’s 2008 Wimbledon victory gave him the top spot, which he held until 2009, then regained in 2010 and which he lost to Novak Djokovic after the Serb defeated him in this year’s Wimbledon final.

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