When I first saw the cover of Rafa, I didn’t like it. After reading the book, I feel that the cover truly conveys the experience of reading the book. Rafael Nadal stares sternly at the reader. He isn’t wearing a shirt, which creates an illusion of exposure and vulnerability, while the face is truly formidable. Lynn Barber once expressed sympathy for his opponents standing on the baseline, waiting to receive his serve. Looking at his expression, it’s easy to understand.
The opening chapter sets the tone for the book. Rafa describes his pre-match ritual, in which he slowly encases himself in his psychological armor. The image that stuck out in my mind is Rafael Nadal standing in front of the mirror tying his bandana around his head. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the company of actors, and many actors connect to a character through something external, be it costume or makeup or physicality. My acting teacher insisted that people come to rehearsal wearing rehearsal shoes, and indeed, some actors begin to prep for a role by shopping for their characters’ shoes. Last year, I saw impersonating Abraham Lincoln. After his presentation, he answered questions from the audience. When someone asked the actor a question, such as his preparation, the actor took off his coat. When an audience member asked Abraham Lincoln a question, such as how he felt at Gettysburg, the actor put his coat back on. I believe that Rafael Nadal may use the bandana in the same way; to transform himself from Rafael Nadal the man, into Rafa Nadal the tennis player, the “bloodless warrior.”
As the title suggests, the reader is invited to delve deep into the mind of Rafa. By recounting the 2008 Wimbledon match and his 2010 US Open Championship, the reader experiences exactly how Rafa thought and felt about the match. He reveals that, following his loss in 2007, he cried in the locker room for 30 minutes, crushed, not only by his performance both physically and mentally. Rafael also describes how he tries to eliminate both the fear of victory and the fear of defeat from his mind as he plays, with varying degrees of success. He was not able to quash the fear of victory in Wimbledon 2008 when he was up 5-2 in the tiebreak and double faulted. He was more successful during the 2010 US Open, when he nearly cried on championship point.
Indeed, one of the most striking (disturbing?) aspects of the book is Rafa unquenchable competitive drive. He describes how he never speaks to his friends when they play golf, and after losing a game of cards with his family, he accused them of cheating. He states that he cannot simply play a game for fun; he has to play to win. In this moment, the distinction between the person Rafael and the persona Rafa seems utterly blurred. I do not fully understand why this drive unnerved me to the extent that it did. I have long known that one of the distinctions between an athlete and a champion is that drive; the obsession with the win, and the willingness (eagerness?) to sacrifice everyone and everything the pursuit of a win. But this was nothing more than an intellectual assertion, and abstract concept to which I would mentally ascent. In Rafa, for the first time, I was encouraged to experience that drive, that competitive fire, to see how it operates in a person’s life and in a competition. It’s an intimidating experience.
Perhaps that intimidation says more about me than it does about the book, or about Rafael Nadal. I never played any kind of sport, except in gym class or as a childhood recreation. In some ways I regret that. I wonder if I would have learned discipline, patience, humility and perseverance by participating in sports, not to mention a good work ethic. On the other hand, considering that I was born with bad knees that needed to be surgically rebuilt when I was 22, it might be a very good thing that I never played sports. But I digress.
The reader is invited to know Rafa very well, but Rafael remains aloof, unwilling to reveal himself too much. To some extent, I completely understand this reluctance. As someone whose Facebook updates mainly consist cryptic statements, and quotes from music and movies, I can hardly blame him for keeping his cards close to the chest. Hell, Emma isn’t my real name.
There are moments though, when Rafael does manage to surface, such as his injury that nearly ended his career, and his subsequent bout with depression. One of the most surprising moments in the book is the anecdote where his sister Muriel finds him crying on the stairs because he was feeling sad that he sacrificed so much time with his friends as a child in order to practice. This is exchange is unexpectedly poignant, and the passages invites the reader to experience both the weight of sacrifice of a professional athlete and the tender bond between a brother and sister.
Perhaps this is ultimately one of the failings of the book. The book gives clear examples of Rafa’s extreme mental strength and his work ethic. But his life outside of that is veiled; the book tells rather than shows. Nowhere is this more evident than in his retelling of his parents’ divorce. John Carlin describes how Rafael’s home had been his “holy, untouchable, core” which then became “paradise lost.” But the writer can only speak in generalities. He does not recount any concrete examples of the tension within his family, other than Rafael giving his father the silent treatment for a plane trip. Admittedly, it is difficult to air a family’s dirty laundry in a book, but I did think of one way he could give more explicit examples of Rafael’s inner turmoil. I found myself wishing he would recount a small conversation between Rafael and his sister; as close as they are, they must have been a pillar of support for each other. Of all the characters in the book, I wish I could have known her better, since I feel she would have given a good insight into Rafael the person, as opposed to Rafa the persona.
His desire for privacy shows itself most clearly in the book’s treatment of The Girlfriend, as Lynn Barber infamously called her. At the beginning of the book, Rafa reveals that he calls her Mary, but throughout the book, he calls her by her full name, Maria Francesca. Referring to her by her full name creates a sense of formality around her, isolating her from the reader. I don’t fault Rafael’s desire for privacy, nor question the wisdom of this decision. However, the writer made a terrible mistake by referring to Rafa’s girlfriend by her full name. If the writer called Rafa’s girlfriend by the nickname Mary, the reader would feel a connection to her, however illusory it might be. Calling Rafa’s girlfriend by her full name throughout the book only highlights the concealment.
No book about Rafael Nadal would be complete without a discussion of Uncle Toni. He certainly comes across as a fully realized character, he is neither a hero nor a villain, a benevolent bully. I find it difficult to know exactly what to make of him. On the one hand, I cannot condone calling a child names, hitting tennis balls at his head, or general bullying behavior. I also wonder at Uncle Toni’s mental failures at a tennis player, and how that drove his training of Rafa, as he attempted to mold him into a tennis machine. The neglect of Rafa’s injury as a child seemed especially troubling. At the same time, tennis is undeniably a mental game as much as a physical game, and developing mental strength and the ability to overcome adversity are essential to success. (See Andy Murray.) Do the ends justify the means? Is it possible to wage psychological warfare on a child without causing permanent damage? The book, as well as Uncle Toni, raises difficult questions, which are beyond the scope of my review to resolve in any way.
I must also say a word about the style of writing in this book. To Rafa’s fans in the English speaking world, Rafa is known very much for his distinctive use of the English language, a language which he speaks proficiently, but not fluently, and sometimes without confidence. This distinctive speech, with the accent and Spanish grammar, means that Rafa, more than many tennis players, has a distinctive voice, that translates quite easily in the page. A person even remotely familiar with his interviews could pick out his statements. These could be part of his appeal, because the English speaking audience has the upper hand in his verbal exchanges. The conversations place him in a more vulnerable position, highlighting his fears and insecurities. They are a part of his charm.
John Carlin, of course, writes the book for Rafael Nadal. This results in Rafa describing Wimbledon’s Center Court as “venerable,” Nole is “mercurial” and Rafa feels “elation” after winning Wimbledon. The writing is evocative and the word choice is precise, which means that the writer can easily experience the emotions that Rafa feels during his matches. Unfortunately, the reader cannot hear the voice of Rafa in the book. I cannot think of an easy solution to this book, because creating the voice of Rafa depends on bad writing, to a certain extent. I wish the writer could have included excerpts from Rafa’s interviews, simply so that I could have heard his voice, and not the voice of the writer.
For my last thought, I return again to the bandana. As any fan of Rafael Nadal knows that, at the end of a match, he rips the bandana from his head as he goes over to the net. I think that this is not simply a practical action. Just as an actor stripping off a costume removes his persona, I think that Rafa removes his tennis persona and becomes Rafael Nadal at that moment. For most of the book, I would say, Rafa keeps his bandana tightly on his forehead, allowing us to know his tennis persona intimately, and experience his thoughts and his feelings throughout a tennis match. However, he never really removes the headband, and allows us to know the person Rafael Nadal. He alludes to his fears and joys, but he rarely allows the reader to experience them firsthand. In the end, the book is exactly as the cover suggests. The reader knows Rafa Nadal very well; and Rafael Nadal, very little.