Rafa!

Article excerpt

Part bull, part bullfighter, Rafael Nadal is a man who never quits or makes excuses in defeat.

As we drool at the prospect of the U.S. Open, two snapshots provide graphic evidence of the chasm between Rafael Nadal's image and the reality of a tennis champion's experience. In the first, the Spaniard stares moodily from kiosks and billboards, dressed in Armani underpants. His chest shaved, his belly flexed in a perfect six-pack, his chiseled face without blemish, this is Nadal as airbrushed metrosexual, calculated to sell not just underwear but the whole "Rafa" brand. As the world's No. 2 player--dethroned at Wimbledon by the Serb Novak Djokovic--and holder of 10 Grand Slam titles, he has pocketed an estimated $60 million in endorsement fees on top of $40 million in prize money.

The other snapshot comes from the final at Roland Garros in Paris in June of this year. Down 2-5 in the first set to Roger Federer, Rafa calls for the trainer and removes his left shoe and sock. As the camera zooms in, the crowd, watching the giant screen on Court Philippe Chatrier, gasps. Rafa's foot is a hunk of raw meat, toes mangled, nails purple, his arch wrapped in tape as thick as a plaster cast.

After the trainer loosens the tape, Rafa plays as if released from leg irons, taking five straight games and the set. Oblivious to pain, he grinds on and on, winning his sixth French Open title to tie Bjorn Borg's record.

At the postmatch press conference, nobody asked about his bloody foot. Nobody suggested sheer grit was the difference between the two players. Reporters wanted to know how it felt to be King of Clay again, and Nadal struggled as always to describe his emotions. A round earlier, after an emphatic victory on his 25th birthday, journalists asked about his feelings as he reflected on his career. "Well," Rafa replied, "is nine years ago already, so long time here flying around the world. You know, a lot of things changed. What never changed is the illusion to keep playing tennis, the illusion to keep doing well the things, and the illusion to be in a good position of the ranking and play these kind of matches."

Perplexed, reporters wondered about this illusion business. Had Rafa lost his marbles, claiming his success amounted to nothing?

It remained for Christopher Clarey of the International Herald Tribune to decode Nadal's meaning. In Spanish, the word ilusion, Clarey said, connotes desire and drive.

For hacks, this wasn't much help. It sounded like another bit of jock-speak, the mantra of every American football coach. They wanted to find something deeper that would explain how Rafael Nadal beats the stuffing out of everybody. But in the end, like kids playing with Legos, all they ever came up with was a plastic man.

Occasionally a new Lego gets clipped onto this stock figure. Several years back it was revealed that Rafa has a girlfriend. But she seldom attends tournaments and doesn't talk to the press, and Rafa says they have no marriage plans, and he doesn't mind not seeing her for months. So the ur-narrative of Nadal centers on his uncle Toni, who has coached him since Rafa was 4 and persuaded the natural-born righty to play left-handed, giving him greater control and power on his two-fisted backhand.

There's no mention of school in the Nadal narrative. When would there have been time? He turned pro at 15 and won the French Open at 19. Hailed as a clay-court virtuoso, he later went on to beat Federer on grass at Wimbledon. Then he defeated him on the hard courts at the Australian Open and won the U.S. Open, again on hard courts, becoming one of only seven men to win a career Grand Slam.

Because of his spectacular physique and relentless energy, Rafa has confronted questions about steroids and denied he or anyone else on the tour takes drugs. That this flies in the face of documented facts--a couple of dozen players have tested positive for performance enhancers--doesn't dissuade him. …