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'Competition turns him on'
Writer and journalist John Carlin is equally at ease writing on food and sport as he is on politics. His much-acclaimed 'Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation', was made into 'Invictus', a stirring film on the story behind South Africa's 1995 rugby World Cup win. His 'White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the New Football' deals with the galactico era at the Spanish superclub. His latest book - 'Rafa My Story' (Rafael Nadal with John Carlin) - offers an insight into one of the most intriguing characters in modern professional sport.
Over the last decade, few people - with the possible exception of Tiger Woods - have had a greater impact on their chosen sport as Nadal. His explosive game, tireless running and audacious stroke-making managed to successfully challenge the reigning deity, Roger Federer, in the supremacy sweepstakes. Yet, as Carlin found out, the familyloving youngster from Mallorca in Spain can be as shy, quirky and uncertain off court as he is fearless on it. 'Rafa My Story' is the result of a ten-month-long close interaction with Nadal and his inner-circle. Excerpts from an interview. . .
It's not exactly the greatest time to release a book on Rafael Nadal. The recent US Open final made it pretty obvious that he has little clue how to work around Novak Djokovic.
Yes, he's certainly having a very tough year against him. Djokovic is really hot now and there is nothing Nadal can do about him. Last year, Nadal beat Novak convincingly in the US Open final, as convincingly as Novak has beaten him this year. (But) as Nadal says, 'Next year will be another year. ' I think Nadal will have to regroup and knowing him, he will come back stronger. His life story is one of overcoming obstacles and difficulties and coming back stronger.
You are a self-confessed lover of beauty in sport. In the book, you have referred to Federer as "Olympian, " while Nadal is the "underdog".
Well, I think Nadal's appeal and personality as a tennis player is that he's always playing the underdog role. And people identify with the underdog because it's the David against Goliath factor and that is part of the reason he generates so much interest. All of us at times think of ourselves as the underdog and that life is passing and things are stacked against us. That's the image Nadal has conveyed - not deliberately - but he comes across as someone who has to work really hard, invest every ounce of his energy and mental strength to win games. But with Federer, you almost get a sense of effortlessness. As if he is born to play tennis, like a dolphin was born to swim in the sea, whereas Nadal has to do an awful amount of work to get to where he has got to than Federer. I think that's what defines the two. Both define two different models of human endeavour, two different heroic roles. And I think that's what's really interesting - that they are both such different tennis personalities.
The 2008 Wimbledon final forms the narrative for most of the book.
The first two-thirds of the book are built around the narrative of that final. What I did was, I watched the DVD of the final with Rafa. We went through it point by point and I was fascinated to be able to get a sense of what he was thinking during each stage of that incredible epic drama. When I watch tennis matches, I find them so intensely, furiously competitive. You almost get a sense of them boxing, rather than playing tennis - with all the power and pace that they play now. It's so excruciatingly tense for a spectator, and I've always wondered what is going through these guys' heads.
Pro sportsmen - golfers, especially - are known to remember each moment, each stroke of a particular contest. Did Rafa relive it all over again?
What's interesting is what a prodigiously detailed memory he has of games that he has played. We were watching the DVD, but even before a point or a moment came up, he'd say, "Now right, coming up is this point, " or "I did this here". He remembered everything he did in extraordinary detail in those points, and he just relived them as if we were there.
At press conferences, he comes across as the politically correct, unfailingly polite superstar. But who is the real Rafael Nadal
He is a real homebody. He only really feels relaxed and comfortable, at peace and well and happy when he is back home with his family and with close friends. He is someone who is respectful to everybody, a quality I've really liked. He is as polite, as attentive to the flight attendant on the plane as he would be with the King of Spain. That's a very endearing quality.
On another level, when he is training - which he does rigorously and relentlessly - he is always extraordinarily tense. You go and watch him in a training session and there's this sort of religious hush in the air. No one makes any jokes, no one makes any noise, everything is very reverent. He gets into a spate of taut concentration, which is my way of saying that the private Nadal is an extraordinarily disciplined person when it comes to anything at all related to his tennis.
I've walked with him for a round of golf and he has no sense of humour at all about losing in any sport, in any competition whatsoever. He is very teeth-gritted and focused even in a leisurely round of golf with a friend.
Does that then make him somewhat unidimensional in that he's so focused on winning that he doesn't enjoy the game?
I think that at some level, there's some degree of pleasure, but it seems more that he derives pleasure from the intensity of the competition. He doesn't derive his pleasure in the relaxed sort of way that ordinary mortals are likely to do when they play a game of tennis or a round of golf. For Rafa, it's the intensity of the competition that turns him on.
With so much intensity, there's always a fear of a burnout for someone so young.
You always have this potential of injury, which you do get with all top-level sportsmen, because as Nadal said, 'they push their bodies to levels that are simply not healthy'. In terms of the burnout, well... what amazes me is how he keeps going. Because having spent time with him, I am just aghast at the intensity of his life. And not just the tennis, because he continues to be assailed by people like you and me, by sponsors who need him, by fans. He's continually travelling, going to these distant lands where it's not where he feels most comfortable. He leads this incredibly stressful life. Having watched him close up, I just couldn't bear to be Rafael Nadal for even one day. I would just give up and would go crying to my mother.
You have likened Nadal to both Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe - both very diverse personalities and tennis players. But which of the two is he closer to?
He is more Borg than McEnroe. McEnroe was extremely expressive and emotional on court. A tennis match for McEnroe seemed to be an emotional roller-coaster. Borg was pure ice. He just retained this sort of rigid, severe concentration all the way through. That's why I say Nadal is a mixture of the two but if you make me choose, he is more Borg than McEnroe.
Isn't it a bit of a concern that modern sportsmen don't seem to be political anymore. Where does Nadal stand in that sense, in comparison to a contemporary like Lionel Messi who isn't political at all, and that could be a concern for his fans back home since the Argentines are a very political, opinion-voicing race?
Maradona and Messi are two completely different animals. Messi is just a person who is very, very introverted and he just lives inside his football bubble and I think Nadal has got a much more wide-ranging personality than Messi. But, Nadal he isn't political at all. He is much more eloquent, articulate and thoughtful in a way beyond most sports figures of his age I have come across. He thinks about things, he does think about the world. He's not someone who's defined himself politically, and I think that's probably a measure of his intelligence. Nadal is somebody who will never express an opinion even in private unless he knows what he is talking about.
In my view, and having followed him closely, Maradona's political ideas are nonsensical. He spouts forth on any subject that enters his head, as if he were some divine, omniscient creature and the mistake people make, is take him seriously. Nadal has the intelligence and the humility to realise that if he is not informed fully on a subject, he's not going to talk about it.
Where he does play a role, and is political to a degree, is he does have the Nadal Foundation he has invested quite a lot of money in different parts of the world, and particularly in India in bringing in sports facilities and making life more agreeable for those people who need it the most. That is the extent of his political nature, and I think, that it's a very laudable one.
Coinciding with Nadal's rise, there seems clear transformation in the Spanish sportsman - more driven, hungrier and as reflected by the Spanish football national team, possessing that crucial killer instinct.
I think it's a combination of factors. Obviously now, Spain is having an economic crisis like everybody else, but for most of the last decade, it was flourishing economically and there was a growing sense of national confidence vis a vis the rest of Europe. They've lost a bit of an inferiority complex that they might have carried through life before, as a nation, that is.
But, also there's a great deal of money invested both by private and public in setting up organised, efficient, intelligently managed sports academies at many different levels. For example, in Barcelona my 11-year-old son plays in a little, local football team and I am just amazed at the degree of discipline among children of the age of seven, eight, nine and ten years old. There is a degree of discipline that the Spanish bring to their sports which they probably don't bring to other parts of their economy. The tennis academies here in Spain draw some of the best players from across the world - including India. I've seen some very good, young Indian players in my tennis club in Barcelona who come along for intensive training sessions. I think the system infuses kids with that competitive spirit to add to that native talent which a lot of Spanish people seem to have for sport.
Nadal would not have been Nadal had it not been for his uncle Tony...
Yes, for starters, Nadal would have most certainly not played tennis if his uncle had not been a tennis coach. Nadal was a very good footballer as a kid, and it just so happened that his uncle was a tennis coach at a club right across the street from where they lived. Tony recognised that his nephew has the talent and the killer instinct that he himself as a player lacked. Quite often, you've seen in other sports that the sportsmen become the realisation of their father's dreams, or their father's frustrated dreams, and in a sense, I think that's what Rafa has been for Tony.
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