Almost 11 years have passed since that legendary 2008 Wimbledon Final and many people still ask the same question: what did the infamous Uncle Toni tell his nephew Rafael before the start of the fifth set?
“Fight until the end and hold” Toni recalled. The word, “hold”, was key in order for Rafa to persevere in what is considered to be the greatest match of this century. According to Uncle Toni — everything came down to a simple concept: “Hold or give up”.
Toni Nadal never allowed that to be an easy decision for his nephew. He expected more from Rafael than from any of his other students. Toni made Rafael pick up the balls and sweep the courts; more importantly, he never allowed him to lose sight of reality after achieving his greatest accomplishments. What the young Rafa did with his uncle’s lessons has continued to be constant throughout his entire career.
Nadal added that the most demanding word of the sport is: suffering. Playing tennis was never fun and although others would interpret it as a punishment, Rafa Nadal took it as a challenge that needed to be resolved.
When Rafa started playing professional tournaments at an early age, he had what he recalls as the “worst serve of all”. His difficulty to find a way to just put it in, was not worth bragging about. However, he had an extremely powerful drive with his left arm and more importantly, a strong desire to win. No matter who was on the other side of the net or if there were thousands of spectators crowded in the stadiums to watch the prodigy of Mallorca play, he played to win.
The dominance of “no matter who was on the other side” included the most powerful player at the time, Roger Federer. During the spring of 2004, Nadal made himself known to the world. The Spaniard, sporting a sleeveless shirt and fisherman shorts, surprised the Swiss by beating him 6-3 6-3 in the second round of the Miami Open.
Who was that 17-year-old boy who jumped up and pumped his fist every single time he won a point? Who was the boy who had just defeated the invincible Federer? His name was Rafael Nadal. Not only did he beat Federer, but he gave the first warning sign of what would happen in the following years in this particular rivalry: 23 wins for Nadal, 15 wins for Federer.
During the summer of 2005, Nadal defeated Federer in the semifinals of Roland Garros; two days later, on his 19th birthday, he won his first clay court title in Paris. Little did anyone know, the history of tennis had just been rewritten. This was the beginning of a long and successful relationship between a player and a tournament. 13 years after that first Musketeers Cup, Nadal holds 12 Roland Garros titles and an impressive 93-2 record in Paris; a record that is the highest number of any tennis player at a Grand Slam in the Open Era.
Although the Argentine Guillermo Vilas lead the records and the nickname, there was no doubt that Nadal would soon be known as the “King of Clay”. Not only for the amount of titles won on the surface, but for the physical aspect, the artistic form and the qualities that he had imposed on the ball.
Placing the ball right in the impossible corners of the court, approaching the net as never see before, improving his serve and getting to each ball with strength and confidence. Nadal reached 429 victories on the dirt and only 39 defeats; figures that are equivalent to 58 titles and a fantastic winning streak of 81 wins between 2005 and 2007. It must be noted that as incredible as it seems, clay was not his priority. He took advantage of his dominance to build his confidence on other surfaces.
Unlike the traditional Spanish, the main goal of the season for Nadal was always Wimbledon. He slowly expanded to conquer other surfaces…. And that he did. Twice at Wimbledon, three times at the US Open, and once in Australia.
Matching the record of Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, in 2010, Nadal became just the fourth player to complete the career Grand Slam. Conclusively, he joined Agassi as the only player to have achieved the Golden Grand Slam (Australia, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic Gold Medal). Let’s not forget to add 33 Masters 1000 titles and 196 weeks as No. 1 in the world.
These statistics could confirm that Rafael Nadal’s career has gone well to say the least. Despite suffering countless of serious injuries, Nadal has always found a way to return, resist, and most importantly, “endure”.
Yet, he has done much more than that. With a career that spans over 17 year and counting – having practically achieved everything, Nadal’s passion for the sport continues intact. He is a symbol of inspiration.
Like the superheroes of comic books who save the world and provide security to humanity, Rafael Nadal has defended, with a cape and a sword, the values that his Uncle Toni taught him: “Be humble”, “Always seek to improve”, “Help others”; with this, “You will achieve all that you want and if you try hard enough”.
Off the court and far away from the spotlight, Rafael Nadal, now 33, is still the young man who enjoys spending an afternoon at home with his family in Mallorca. He is also still the person who enjoys the simple things in life such as walking on the beach, playing video games, soccer games or going fishing with his friends.
Nadal maintains that he is grateful for all that tennis has given him, along with the platform he now has; he know that his image is big and admired so he does his best to help society through his Foundation, helps with charities, invites his colleagues to join good causes and encourages the sport through his Academy that helps train the new generations of Spanish tennis.
On October 13, 2018, one month after having played his last game of the season in the semifinals of the US Open, the best Spanish athlete of all time gave a new lesson of humility. Without informing anyone, he put on his boots and helped clean up Sant Llorenc, Mallorca, after heavy flooding affected the area. He felt no need to offer a statement or conduct an interview to say “Here I am, look at what I’m doing”. Once again, the whole world applauded this gesture.
Nadal is extraordinary, even in simplicity. During difficult times, he will rise above. When the day comes that Rafa Nadal will be listed in the history books, in addition to his extraordinary tennis skills, we must not forget to highlight his values. His values must be used an example for the following generations. It will have to be defined as what it is: a human who fought until the end to eventually became a true superhero.