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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 8 March 2021

A nice guy who finishes first

Rafael Nadal, the world No 1, pounds opponents into submission; yet it is hard to find a humbler person off the court.
Whatever be the margin of victory, the Spanish Rafael Nadal, right, hardly ever seems to revel in his own majesty.
Whatever be the margin of victory, the Spanish Rafael Nadal, right, hardly ever seems to revel in his own majesty.

For us misfits who tend to eyeball the peculiar area of life known as "professional tennis", the players' parents can become curiously familiar, like supporting actors in some eccentric drama.

Those are the devoted Williamses right there, and of course over there would be the Federers, and that man with the T-shirt with the likeness of his son so gigantic that it might scare you if you woke up and saw it amid the night would be Mr Djokovic, unmistakably.

The singular woman sitting studiously over there, the tennis professor who just loathes it when people feel the urge to commit chitchat during matches?

That would be Judy Murray, mother and first coach of Andy.

Even in this unique front-rows tapestry, though, some parents remain usually absent for a range of good human reasons, as with Pete Sampras or Lindsay Davenport or the No 1 kingpin, just now alighting in Abu Dhabi after a colossal Year 2010, Rafael Nadal.

We do not know Nadal's parents, but somehow, we do know something paramount about his parents. We know they were, are, must be, excellent.

We know this because amid a sporting planet so deserving of cynicism, so laced with wince-worthy opportunism, they unwittingly sent a son from the Spanish island of Mallorca out into global fame armed with a heaping dose of - dare we say in the 21st century? - good manners.

Nadal's good manners might not bear the effete courtliness the phrase might suggest, but they are deep and consistent and appealing and part of this funny little puzzle about the 24-year-old sportsman: on the court opposite his brutalising game that earns rote boxing comparisons, opponents suffer a form of suffocation until yearning "to go in the locker room and just want him to go away", as the American TV analyst and former pro Luke Jensen once put it.

And off the court? What fine company.

From the moment he won the 2005 French Open at 19 and emphasised that it should not change him, he has sprinkled across the years a fundamental decency that might go occluded given the big game, big hair and big muscles. In the third round of Wimbledon in 2006, with his grass-court prowess still unestablished at 20, he defeated Andre Agassi in three sets as the latter bowed in four directions to say a final farewell, whereupon Nadal supplied a peek into his own considerate sense of place.

When a reporter noted Nadal's muted joy during an important match against a renowned champion, Nadal said, "Yeah, sure, is not my day, no? Today I play my best match, but is not my day for have a good celebration, no? Is his day."

An American writer likes to tell of when Nadal's representatives invited to his Wimbledon digs some American reporters for a get-to-know-you. The champion greeted the guests, ensured everyone had a seat and then plopped himself in their midst … on the floor.

If you bother to look, his way has sustained itself through all subsequent hosannas.

Say you happened to follow him out of the 2009 French Open when, after four consecutive French Open titles, Nadal had just sustained a jolting, shocking, fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling, Nadal's first loss on the red soil of Roland Garros.

Well, your path following him off his cherished grounds one Sunday too early would have been halting, because he had to stop, hug goodbye and thank all the attendants working the tournament from behind the counters.

After a while of this kind of thing, it comes as unsurprising that you can start chatting with a fireman from Mallorca at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, bring up Nadal and learn that, sure, sometimes one can see him down by the water, sitting around, hanging out with old friends.

After he lost the 2008 US Open semi-final to Murray, again postponing his most elusive major, he finished his press conference, reached the hallway, grinned and hopped playfully upon the back of his physiotherapist, Rafael Maymo. You might think he had just won.

His insistent respect for every opponent, even those clearly about to undergo a profound pelting, always seems curiously sincere even if logically irrational.

His failure to revel in his own majesty seems to show in how he greets grand-slam titles, by falling supine as if half-bewildered when everyone else saw doubtlessness.

Study enough of this, and you can reach an odd conclusion. In this strange tennis universe with its omnipresent parents, you might think that though you don't know these parents, his reflection of them evinces that they must be people you would like to know.

Published: December 30, 2010 04:00 AM


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