I don’t like tennis. I don’t like any sport involving balls, with the exception of soccer. Actually, all I know about the Olympic disciplines is what Dave Barry suggested: “Have you noticed that whatever sport you’re trying to learn, some earnest person is always telling you to keep your knees bent?” I compensate for my aversion to all other sports with an inordinate passion for soccer or, more specifically, Real Madrid. And yet I admire the careers of certain elite sportspeople. I admire those who know how to use their fame to spread values. I admire the Spanish tennis player Rafa Nadal, whom I only judge negatively for biting the trophies he wins, which is something that I really dislike.
Nadal, with a chronic foot injury, did not know if he would be able to play tennis again. And yet, last January he made history by winning the 2022 Australian Open, after an epic comeback, also becoming the tennis player with the most Grand Slam wins in history. Of course, he is a born winner, but there is so much more. What makes me proud to share my nationality with him is what you can’t see. That and the fact that he is also a Real Madrid supporter.
Rafa Nadal was born in Manacor, in the Balearic Islands, Spain, on June 3, 1986. In 2005, he won his first Roland Garros. His sporting life since then has been a constant struggle against injuries and a nonstop celebration of sporting success. Success that he has garnered against some of the best in history, such as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The nephew of former professional soccer player Miguel Ángel Nadal and trained for years by his uncle Toni Nadal, he kept at his studies until the age of 14, at which time his father advised him to choose between a career in sports or academics. The answer to the question is within the reach of any astute reader.
He is a good-mannered family man, raised in a humble family with values — a family that had already managed the success of Barcelona footballer Nadal. His career stands out both on and off the court for his mixture of effort, humility, and generosity. He has led an exemplary life, aware from the first minute that he would become a role model for the younger players, who would place his attitude, his gestures, his successes and failures, and everything he says under the microscope. Nadal chose not to be just another famous idiot.
A few days after his success at the Australian Open 2022, he participated in a sports conference and said, “It is important to cultivate a true inner humility in order to accept that things are not always going to go well.” He also admitted that he was not particularly obsessive about taking care of his own body, and in that aspect I was beginning to feel akin to him until he added, “The only thing with which I have been consistent is in how hard I work.” The only thing I’ve been consistent about is going for a beer on time after work.
I have not met anyone who speaks poorly of Rafa Nadal, except for some sore tennis balls.
But there is something different about Rafa Nadal. Despite fierce rivalry on the courts, he maintains a sincere friendship with his competitors. That explains why Federer was one of the first to congratulate him on his latest triumph, and why the Spaniard responded instantly, “It’s an honor to be part of Roger’s era.” Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro says Nadal “is a player who is above the rest,” Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov praises his “fighting spirit and courage,” and South Africa’s Kevin Anderson appreciates that he “always takes you to the maximum.” Incidentally, his poise and sense of humor were made evident in a statement he issued a few years ago: “If someone says I’m better than Roger Federer, I think he doesn’t know anything about tennis.” So, in effect, it’s Nadal himself who confirms that I know nothing about tennis.
But let’s talk about his background. Toni Nadal voiced an opinion that went viral after his nephew’s latest triumph. He denounced that education systems have been leaving aside “everything that requires effort,” making young people only enjoy struggles that offer “immediate rewards” and causing legions of minors to end up “frustrated, bored and quick to give up.” Toni Nadal adds that this is “a process of decline that began decades ago,” and that has become more acute “with the efforts made by certain rulers in need of popularity and support from a growing group of people who need to think that they are contributing to create an ideal world and to boast of their great heart, their excellent correctness and their singular empathy.”
What Toni Nadal is denouncing is, in reality, the core of Western cultural decadence. In the end, our decadence is like a walk through the zoo. “Recent generations,” wrote Gómez Dávila already in the last century, “walk amongst the rubble of Western culture like a caravan of Japanese tourists walking through the ruins of Palmyra.”
Thus, humility is not a rising value among celebrities today, most of those who boast of it are only posing. Nadal is different. Perhaps this is because his own coach used to play a game with him every time he won a tournament as a child: He would show him the list of previous winners of the same competition so that Nadal could see that almost all of them had fallen into anonymity after achieving the same as him. This exercise was also a memento mori. Uncle and nephew often describe the tennis player as someone normal who simply plays good tennis. This amazes me because I, not even a bestselling writer, would find it hard to define myself as a normal guy who just writes stuff.
Off the courts, Rafa Nadal stands out for his commitment to numerous charities. The tennis player points out that at home his mother set the example, remembering how she always gave what she could to those in need. For 11 years, the Rafa Nadal Foundation has been carrying out projects that combine sports, granting opportunities, values, and education. These include the Nadal Education Tennis School, which serves several hundred children in southern India, and More Than Tennis, which is aimed at training people with intellectual disabilities and serves more than 1,700 athletes in Spain. In the United States, he works on the Juega y Estudia (Play and Study) project, which provides scholarships to more than a hundred young people to promote sporting and educational talent in American universities.
The tennis player defines himself as a “cultural Catholic.” Not so long ago he explained, “I am not an atheist, nor an agnostic, nor a practicing Catholic. I have many doubts and I keep asking myself many questions.” But I immediately defended the term “cultural Catholic” as one who is capable of assuming, practicing, and defending the values of Christianity, even without having the gift of faith. Whoever, living in this way, admits to asking questions is, in a way, in a process of searching for God. It is partly reminiscent of what Benedict XVI wrote in Light of the World: “How do we live in a world that threatens itself, and in which progress becomes a danger? Will we not have to start over with God? The question of God presents itself again in a different form for the new generation.” With his good disposition, something tells me that Rafa will one day find himself face to face with God and, smiling like a naughty child, he will be forced to say to Him, “Ah, so I was doing all this for You?”
Nadal was struck by the example of the American tennis player Tim Smyczek, who, facing Rafa Nadal in 2015 in the second round of the Australian Open, asked the referee to allow the Spaniard to repeat a key serve after he had sent it into the net because a brainless fool from the audience had shouted and distracted him. The chivalrous gesture of Smyczek, a Catholic who professes to always go to Mass, wherever he is competing, touched Nadal, who had only affectionate words of recognition for the American after the match. In the end, what Hilaire Belloc wrote always comes true: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.”
Rafa Nadal got married in 2019 to his longtime girlfriend, and he did it by the Catholic Church in a simple and intimate ceremony, officiated by a priest, a friend of the family known for his projects and charity work in Mallorca. The priest, in a recent interview, pointed out that Rafa Nadal “is an example of the values he transmits. That is why he is surrounded by people who love him.” And it is true, I have not met anyone who speaks poorly of Rafa Nadal, except for some sore tennis balls.
Although it is often said that Nadal lives like a hermit, focused only on competing, the fortune he manages intelligently through various companies has allowed him to indulge in luxurious whims, both in his mansions and in his passion for sailing; he often defines himself as someone in love with the sea. None of this, neither success nor money, however, has caused him to lose his mind. Perhaps this is because, as he explains, he is rooted to land and family, and that helps him to live with his feet on the ground. “I don’t live in a bubble, I live in Manacor,” Nadal says. “When I come back from the tournaments, I return to the real world.” And Nadal’s love for his homeland is also fundamental: “Paying taxes in another country I would have earned twice as much money, but living in Spain I have gained twice as much happiness.” That’s a subtle and polite way of asking the social communists who govern Spain to take their hands out of our pockets for a while.
In a time in which success is measured only by fame, and in which the role models are often people who have enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame on social networks, Rafa Nadal’s career, his effort and his normalcy, is light for this world in darkness. Rafa Nadal’s record, indeed, is colossal, but he and I know that what is really colossal is what he hides inside his chest. Most youths cannot aspire to be as good a sportsman as he is, but anyone can try to be at least as good a person.