After studying the exotic wildlife of the Galápagos Islands, Charles Darwin surmised that animals can develop unique traits when they evolve in isolation. In the tennis world, Rafael Nadal is such an animal. Based on the island of Majorca, Nadal and his family shunned mainstream training programs as he grew up, preferring the more homespun methods of Rafael's uncle Toni, whose tennis credentials consist of a brief stint competing on the national circuit. Passing up funding from Spain's national tennis academy, and scholarship money from America's private academies, Rafael and Toni would travel to the mainland only when a tournament required it. More skillful opponents were viewed as problems to overcome, not exemplars to be mimicked. Nadal — who first picked up a racquet aged 3 — and his coach found their own solutions, developing a style of play concerned less with form and technique than with results. What matters is winning. Or as Nadal puts it, "I've always liked the competition more than the tennis."
Whatever; it's worked. The approach ultimately produced an unorthodox, physical and devastatingly effective game that has taken Nadal, 22, to the top of men's tennis. In 2008, he recorded one of the sport's most successful seasons, becoming the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win on the slow clay of Roland Garros in Paris and the slick grass of Wimbledon in the same year, while also picking up an Olympic gold and the ATP's top ranking. Given all that, you might expect Nadal to stick with what's working. But he and, most especially, his coach can't help themselves. Having proved that Nadal's unique style can beat any player in the world, Toni has been quietly picking apart Nadal's game, remaking it shot by shot so that the Spaniard plays not less classically but more classically. As Nadal prepares for this year's first grand slam event, in Australia beginning Jan. 19, the top seed and his coach seem to be posing a new challenge: Can tennis's great outsider win by embracing normal?
All athletes develop their own mix of style and technique. But Nadal's peculiarity is quantifiable. San Francisco–based tennis researcher John Yandell has used video-capture technology to record the topspin of Nadal's forehand. He found that Nadal's shot rotates at an average of 3,200 times a minute. Andre Agassi, one of the game's great shotmakers, generated 1,900 rotations per minute in his prime, and current world No. 2 Roger Federer, whose forehand is considered among the game's best, generates 2,700. As U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe has said of Nadal, "His normal safe forehand is the toughest shot in the world."
That forehand is the central component of a style that tennis experts call "counter-punching." It's one that absorbs an opponent's attacking play with aggressive returns, and springs from Nadal and his uncle's contrarian instincts. Nadal is naturally right-handed. But early on, Toni decided his protégé should play with his left hand to impart unusual southpaw spin. Toni then encouraged, or perhaps failed to correct, the extreme grip Nadal uses, and the unusual way he swings his racquet. To this day, instead of using the forward momentum of his body to generate pace on his forehand as the training manuals recommend, Nadal falls backward from the net on his forehand, whipping his racquet behind his head instead of across his body. This movement results in looping shots that keep an opponent heaving balls back, often on the run, in a nightmare from which only an error provides release. Rallying with Nadal, says former Top 10 player turned coach Brad Gilbert, "is an education in pain."
It's a pain Nadal applied indiscriminately last year, even against Federer, who may just be the greatest player of all time. The Spaniard's rise to No. 1 ended a five-year period in which Federer's free-flowing and artistic play came as close as humanly possible to achieving perfection within the boxed constraints of a tennis court. Since his first French Open victory in 2005, Nadal's more muscular game has consistently overcome the Swiss star on Nadal's favorite surface — clay. But in 2008, Nadal came out on top in four meetings, including an epic five-set Wimbledon final that dethroned the grass-court champion in one of the greatest matches ever played. More than any other, that match — in which Nadal seized control early on and slowly squeezed the air out of Federer, even as the Swiss player thrashed out a brave but doomed comeback — summed up Nadal's unique brand of tennis: protracted but certain in its path to victory.
Nadal's exoticism on the tennis court stands in contrast to the conventional life he lives off it. The son of a prosperous family — his father, Sebastian, runs a successful window company, another uncle was a star soccer defender for Barcelona and Spain — Nadal retains the earnest good manners of a middle-class Spaniard. Rebellious in his fist-pumping, swashbuckling play, he dresses smartly for social occasions. He lists his hobbies as golf, fishing and video games, and follows his uncle's rule that he carry his own bags and racquets when at tournaments. He still lives with his parents. His girlfriend, 20-year-old Maria Francisca Perello, is a student in Majorca whom Nadal met through family friends. "People see Nadal as some sort of rebel, but he's really just a normal guy, a normal Spaniard. He likes normal things and he lives a normal life," says his publicist Benito Perez-Barbadillo. Or, as Nadal puts it, "I'm happy all the time. But I'm most happy at home."
The Weakness in Power
Nadal may be a simple guy off the court, but he has found himself cast as a villain on it. Tennis purists have long bleated that his jarring, defensive game is less pleasing to watch and less effective than Federer's fluid style. Recently, though, the game's élite have started to come around. Swedish great Stefan Edberg has declared Nadal "unbeatable" by today's professionals, and Pete Sampras told reporters on Dec. 2 it may be Nadal, not Federer, who breaks his career-defining record of 14 major championships (Nadal has 5; Federer, five years older, has 13).
But there is a caveat. Can someone with such a high-intensity game last long enough to break all the records? Tennis players' longevity varies depending on their style of play. As points and matches lengthen, careers often shorten. Nadal and his coterie of physical trainers know that the flip side of his heavy topspin is that it forces him to engage in bruising rallies. His muscle-bound physique — which Nadal says is down to genes rather than weight-lifting — adds an extra burden: the explosive forces those muscles generate put his body under increased strain.
This is particularly evident on a hard court, which offers less forgiveness than the softer surfaces of clay and grass, and may explain why Nadal has never managed to make the final of a Grand Slam hard-court event. Ask his trainer, Rafael Maymo, what parts of Nadal's body are under strain when he plays, and he answers: "Shoulder, feet, legs and back. Oh wait, that's every part." Sampras is even more direct: [Nadal] puts so much effort into each point that eventually something will break."
Just as his counter-punching style relies on a fundamental obstinacy, Nadal seems naturally resistant to criticism. In interviews, he consistently deflects questions with rhetorical returns ("But clearly I play better, no?" "I've won on grass before, no?"). At the BNP Paribas Masters in November, he insisted that what really needed changing was the length of the professional tennis season, not his game. (Two days later, tendinitis in his knee forced him to withdraw from the event.) "The Tour is very tough because the season is too long in my opinion," he told TIME as he melted four squares of butter into a steaming heap of plain pasta. (A portion of salmon waited to one side). "Next year is going to be very difficult for me because I have had such a tough season already."
But while Nadal gripes about too many matches, Toni has been reworking his nephew's game to make it less physically demanding. In recent months, the pair have focused on increasing the velocity of Nadal's serve in the hope of earning more aces, and improving Nadal's net play in the hope of shortening rallies. More drastically, they have begun altering Nadal's trademark forehand. In Paris, I spent two hours watching Nadal practice forehands with a follow-through that came around his body in the traditional manner rather than whiplashing behind his head. Toni barked complaints if his pupil unconsciously reverted to his old follow-through. At one point, unhappy with the results, Toni pointed at a promotional picture of Federer on the JumboTron above the court, a post-forehand action shot of the Swiss player with the caption hit that back if you can! See, like that!, Toni seemed to be indicating. "Federer is a wonderful player," Toni says later, before making a gesture with his hand in imitation of a painter's strokes. "He plays with [this]," he says, hand brushing up and down. "His spirit is so easy."
Is his coach encouraging Nadal to mimic Federer? "No, Federer is too good," says Toni. "Rafael must play like himself but better, [less spin], quicker points." But how can Federer be too good when Rafael is ranked No. 1? "There is a difference between who is better and who knows more," says Toni. "Better now is Rafael, he is No. 1 in the ranking. But who has the best game? Federer."
Playing the Game
Spend a few days with Nadal and it becomes clear that the changes he is making to his game are part of a wider makeover that he and his handlers have planned for 2009. At the center of these changes is the desire to project a more mature image. Whether that comes from Nadal himself is tough to say. Tennis stars can remain children long into their careers. Many players turn pro in their mid-teens. In the player's lounge at the Paris Masters, top pros in their late teens or early twenties lay around on faux-zebra-skin couches while their managers hustled the phones. The most popular section of the players' restaurant was a wall filled with jars of candy and licorice, and back at the hotel players spent a good portion of their time playing video games together. Even in this setting, there has always been something particularly childlike about Nadal's public persona, from his obsessive prematch routine of arranging his water bottles just so, to his compulsive butt-scratching between points, to his habit of posing for championship photographs while biting onto trophies like a teething tot.
Nadal's manager, Carlos Costa of the management company IMG, says the young champ is ready to grow up. The role model, again, is Federer, who has positioned himself as an elder statesman of the tour and whose exquisite touch on the court and advertiser-friendly image as a trilingual Swiss gentleman brought in an estimated $35 million in prize money and endorsements in 2008. (Nadal's camp won't discuss finances, but tennis writers estimate Nadal's earnings fall considerably short of that.) "When you see Nadal and Federer it's a different type of person," says Costa. [Federer] is more adult, [Nadal] seems more like a kid." If Nadal's earnings are to grow, that will have to change. Nadal's sponsors target "young people," says Costa. "But he needs to be the kind of guy that brands can think of as an ambassador. Someday he's going to be a man, more than a kid."
That day may be some way off. As part of the campaign to rebrand Nadal, Nike announced last summer that the player would wear a new line of attire at the U.S. Open. Nadal normally wears knee-length shorts and a sleeveless shirt — a trademark pirate costume loved by fans, which looks ridiculous on anything other than Nadal's muscled body. Nike said the new line would be "more mature" and appeal to an older tennis-playing public. But only days before the tournament began, the clothes were withdrawn because Nadal said he felt uncomfortable.
Could changing tennis's most unique and effective specimen backfire? Nadal will never lose certain aspects of what makes him so effective: his pugilist spirit, and the ability to impose his muscular game on more talented players. But so much of his success stems from his resistance to tradition that Toni's plan to make his charge more orthodox may dim Nadal's aura among fellow pros. When I asked the American player Andy Roddick about the changes, he couldn't believe that Nadal would voluntarily reduce the spin on his forehand. "One of the things that is difficult about facing [Nadal] is the extreme topspin he gets on the ball," Roddick told TIME. "If it's true, I don't think it would make him more effective."
And while sponsors may want Nadal to become a man, he needs to be his own man. Fans love Nadal because he seems so real. Even his most deliberate calculations — to pick up the racquet in his left hand and hit the ball in a way nobody has before — seem to stem from a subversive instinct. For tennis's antihero, on the court at least, normal might be a step too far.