I’ve just come back from visiting my mother a 90 year old tennis fanantic. I picked up last week’s New York Times Magazine and there, on the cover, is Rafael Nadal, the curremt number one in men’s tennis and as well as the current heartthrob for women. I look at Nadal and Federer as Borg and McEnroe: Borg was the pin-up but they could both play tennis.
What really stood out for me in the Times article by Cynthia Gorney is the discussion of Rafael Nadal’s character. Like many professional tennis players, he has little formal education but he is educated in ways that are perhaps more important.
He signs the balls and the bare arms and the T-shirts. He rumples small boys’ hair. He waits while people press up alongside him to pose for snapshots. The Nadal personality stories that circulate among tournament fans are all variations on a single theme: the young man is educado, as they say in Spanish, not so much educated in the formal sense (Nadal left conventional schooling after he turned pro at 15), but courteous, respectful, raised by a family with its priorities in order. Nadal may have the on-court demeanor of a hit man, as far as the party across the net is concerned, but you will never see this champion hurl his racket during a match.
Nadal is coached by his uncle, Toni Nadal, and still lives in Majorca in a small town surrounded by relatives.
“It’s about respect,” Toni told me. “It’s really easy for these guys to start thinking the world revolves around them. I never could have tolerated it if Rafael had become a good player and a bad example of a human being. I was at a symposium recently and a trainer said to me, ‘Look, if you ask a young player’s father which he’d rather get at the end of this process — a courteous person or the French Open champion — you know what that father is going to say.’ And I said: ‘No, that’s all wrong. Because if that player is brought up courteous, brought up as a respectful person, he’s got a better chance to reach the championship of the French Open — because it’s going to be easier for him to accomplish the hard work.’ ”
This is what is missing in someone like Kobe Bryant who appears to think that live evolves around him. It is not missing – although I think it came close to be missing – in Paul Pierce. People talk about the current Red Sox team and call people like Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia boring, but they appear to have the sense of self that is missing in so many “stars”.
Rafael Nadal spent three year ranked second in the world with only Roger Federer ahead of him.
Nadal was a phenomenal No. 2. His No. 2-ness was heroic and inspirational, and he was known to mention it quite cheerfully in press conferences: “I’m not the best, but I am a very good No. 2 in the world.”
The world needs more of this kind of attitude from both the talented kids – and from their parents.