Seeing as – dare I say it – Christmas is approaching, and you may be looking for a little something to put in a tennis fan’s stocking? Well I thought I’d offer up a review of “Rafa – My Story”, the collaborated autobiography between Rafael Nadal and John Carlin.
First and fore-most I have to say that I enjoyed it. I think as a piece of writing its well crafted and well put together. Whilst its Rafa’s “autobiography”, there are several voices in there. His own (re-counting largely the tennis match memories), John Carlin’s (re-counting his interpretation of Rafa’s other thoughts and memories) and that of some of his team, friends and family (with one notable exception). Its central theme is the Wimbledon final of 2008, and the match flows through the whole book whilst it picks up and intersperses on other aspects of Rafa’s life along the way. Because of this, its like structured story telling, but without the standard start-middle-end aspect of say Rafa’s young years, then teenage boy, to tennis champ rolling through each season from 2005 to 2010. And for that, I liked it.
In keeping with biographies, largely they bring you a mixture of what you already know, along with some new revelations. But this is Rafa – not Andre Agassi – so the revelations aren’t of a shocking or controversial nature. But once you’ve got past that Rafa doesn’t like the dark, and that he doesn’t like dogs; that Mallorca, his family and his friends are central to him and to who he is; that he has to have his off and on-court rituals; that he likes fishing and football, we move onto the revelations, the first being something I knew about, but as it turns out, I didn’t really know about … Rafa’s real Achilles Heel. No, its not the knees, its his foot.
The book reveals that he has a congenital problem and a very rare disease in his tarsal scaphoid (look it up). Essentially this bone in Rafa’s foot failed to harden and ossify in childhood and has become deformed, bigger than it should be, and is therefore liable to splinter. As it did in 2006. It is managed by specially constructed insoles within his shoes to help take away the stress from that area and to this day, they are still working on getting them absolutely right to take away the pain. And the by-product? The price of angling his foot with an insole means that it puts stress on other parts of his body, and whilst the book talks about his calves and his back and doesn’t specifically cite his knees … I think it alludes enough to it that they have suffered as a result.
But the stand out revelation in this book and what I found both shocking and illuminating … is Rafa’s relationship with Toni.
Before I start giving my opinion, I do believe that they are the sum of two parts, intrinsically linked with the other. And Rafa points out he loves him – several times – and that he credits his success to him. But I found him to be a bully.
I find his methods excessive, shocking even, to a young boy – and even to a young man. Its strange that he seems to have this mercurial standing in the family … but is the black sheep, the outsider, just ever so removed from them all. And I truly believe that if he had been anything other than family, then they would have taken Rafa straight away from his charge. And yet whatever they thought, (and even though some family members did think Toni’s treatment of Rafa was too much at times), they allowed it to continue because family trust over-rode everything else. But when Rafa talks of the slap downs, the lack of praise, being picked out especially for criticism … I fail to see where this is character building and just believe it to be, well … abusive. Rafa seems to have been told over and over that others are better than him, how so much about his tennis just wasn’t good enough, next to no praise but a heap load of criticism. I found it painful reading that Toni called Rafa a “Mummy’s boy” … and yet in the book you have a statement from his mother where she says it pains her for the world to think that someone else brought up her own son.
And the one character within the Nadals that I didn’t particularly care for before reading this book, was Papa … Sebastian. But I’ve changed my opinion simply because he has been so central in Rafa’s life by being the balancing out figure from whatever Toni was applying and so very important to him.
And I’m sure that people will say that without each other, they would not have been who they are today. Now for Toni, I feel that is particularly true. His “Mallorquin-ess” would have left him a simple tennis coach on the island, probably never making anyone a world champion, but mostly I believe that no parent would have allowed what he meted out to Rafa to happen to their child. But for Rafa himself … I’m biased, maybe. But I believe he would have made himself into some sort of sports champion regardless … whether as a tennis player, or he may have even found that calling as a footballer. There just seems something inherent within him that isn’t put in there by Toni, his parents or anyone, that just makes him want to be competitive in sport and to succeed … a Champion.
I read that Toni has claimed not to have read Rafa’s book, and that’s probably true. But there is a part within it where Rafa seems to be teeming tale, after tale after tale of incidents where he has had to suppress himself, put up and shut up, or just subjugate himself to Toni … and I get the feeling now that as a 25-year-old man, Rafa’s wanting to battle back, be his own man. But one incident in the book during “Rafa’s Rant” is how, during the US Open 2010 after the Istomin match, they had a tumultuous row where Toni yelled at Rafa for not wearing his “Face”, and that he was too easily expressing his frustrations during the match … and Rafa fought back believing Toni to be so wrong in his judgement that it resulted in Toni stating that he would quit. They obviously patched it up (and its not revealed how), but you do have to ask yourself as to the merit of that kind of coaching at this stage in his career … now that Rafa is the man, and a multi-Slam winning champion. Rafa recalls that if he expresses doubt in himself, Toni will yell at him for his lack of confidence. Yet he is the product of Toni’s DNA because if he ever expressed himself as better than his opponent, then Toni would have admonished him for that too.
After reading this book and with the gift of hind-sight in being able to see how the 2011 season worked out, Toni’s harsh, critical methods seem old hat to me now. This constant thing of Toni’s in Rafa being told he’s not good enough, others being better, always instilling the fear of the opponent in him … well, its been entirely counter-productive this year, hasn’t it? In my opinion, that relationship is at a critical point because actually its Toni that has to prove his worth now. He shouldn’t be trotting out tat about Rafa’s game face being wrong … what he should be doing is earning his coin as a coach, and developing tactical plans and tactical measures for Rafa to employ to help beat his opponents. In the book, its interesting that Rafa admits that he has no game plan against Djokovic, none. He just hopes he can be the better player than him on the day. Make of that what you will …
I think one of the most interesting things about autobiographies is the timing of their publication. There was a lot of bru-ha-ha when it was first announced that Rafa would be doing this book; you know, the usual stuff of how at his age and when he’s still mid-career, how could he possibly have a story to tell? Well, I didn’t agree then because I felt Rafa has an amazing story of his rise to professional tennis player, to be the clay court King and then develop himself into a winner across all surfaces. How in 2008 he won it all, to then lose it all in 2009, but then rise from personal and professional adversity to be the Champion and No. 1 player again in 2010 and the youngest ever to achieve the career Grand Slam. But when John Carlin left Rafa in January 2011 just before the start of the Australian Open, I think the publishers thought that before the book was released, a magnificent, final chapter could be included … the RafaSlam … Rafa holding all Grand Slam titles at the same time, the stuff of legends.
But that didn’t happen, the story didn’t have that conclusion, and a very different twist in the Rafa tale occurred with the Djokovic rise instead. But as 2012 approaches, are we to have one more final, glorious sequel in the story of Rafa Nadal? Only time will tell …
Rafa’s book is a highly entertaining read and a well written book … so if you’re a fan, an appreciator, or just a general observer of tennis … I’d say that its a “must read”. Go buy it, and enjoy …