Monday, September 26, 2011

Rafa: the pros and cons of a mid-career memoir

[Okay, this is my last piece on tennis for some time - a review I did of Rafael Nadal's autobiography for Business Standard. Some earlier thoughts on Nadal and the book are here]

Sporting careers follow a different trajectory and time-scale to most others. Since a top player in a physically demanding sport may well retire at age 30 or less, having already achieved most of the things he will be remembered for, there’s nothing unusual about an athlete having a memoir out at a relatively young age. But some debate can be expected when a sportsman’s autobiography arrives while his career is still active and near its peak. And so, the first question that must be asked about Rafael Nadal’s life chronicle Rafa is: why now?

One obvious answer is that last year, at the age of just 24, Nadal became the youngest male tennis player to complete the Career Slam – that is, winning all four majors (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open) at least once. That’s a prestigious enough achievement in itself, but the context made it more dramatic. A year earlier, injuries, family troubles and apparent lack of mental focus had combined to put a question mark against Nadal’s longevity; many journalists and viewers had sounded the death knell for his career. This made his resurgence – and the solidification of his status as one of his sport’s best players – even more impressive.

In our age of instant information and round-the-clock media scrutiny, it must have seemed natural to come out with the “official”, inspirational story. Rafa covers various aspects of Nadal’s life, but the narrative is anchored around the two defining matches of his career: the celebrated 2008 Wimbledon final against his great rival Roger Federer, which saw Nadal win his first non-clay Slam and take a big step towards claiming the number one ranking; and the 2010 US Open final win – against another worthy rival Novak Djokovic – which completed the Spaniard’s Slam collection.

Though we’re told that this book is authored “with” journalist John Carlin, it’s safe to assume that the writing is entirely Carlin’s. For one thing, Rafa isn’t exclusively in the first person; alternating with its main narrative are short, “objective” chapters that provide an outsider’s commentary on Nadal and his inner circle. Also, the refined coolness of the writing (phrases like “the cathedral hush of Wimbledon’s Centre Court” and “I didn’t expressly prohibit them from raising the subject” appear in the first couple of pages) will initially be distancing for anyone familiar with Nadal’s spoken English (“He play better than me – that’s the true, no?”). But as you read on, it works because it reflects the inner clarity of a contemplative, grounded sportsman.

This comes across most vividly in Nadal’s reflections on the day before a big match, and the hours leading up to it: about chatting with family over dinner and pretending it’s a normal day, though everyone knows he has already started playing the match “in a space inside my head that should remain mine alone”. Or how, when he finds himself alone with Federer in the locker room a few minutes before a final – just the two of them in a spookily quiet space that housed 128 players a fortnight earlier – he settles for a quick handshake. (“To joke or chatter about football, as we might before an exhibition match, would have been a lie he would have seen through immediately and interpreted as a sign of fear.”)

A major talking point around any mid-career memoir is what a sportsperson should or should not disclose while he is still playing. Nadal has been prone to recurring injuries, which get extensive media coverage. His supporters point out that like many other athletes, he plays through the pain and is often good enough to win tournaments despite his ailments; but there has been a rising belief that injuries are used as convenient excuses for losses, or that his frequent medical time-outs are ploys to throw off an opponent’s rhythm. Even those who are inclined to give him the benefit of doubt have gently suggested that he might be turning into a bit of a hypochondriac; recent incidents such as the one where grabbing a hot plate in a restaurant led to nasty finger blisters, or the unfortunate attack of cramps during a US Open press conference, have been the subjects of much Internet humour.

Perhaps with an eye on this negative publicity, Rafa tries to set the record straight, providing medical details about the congenital foot disease that almost ended Nadal’s career in 2005, and the effect it had on his subsequent physical and mental conditioning. An obvious downside to making such revelations is that it might give rivals extra information as well as motivation. But this is clearly a risk he has opted to take.

Other highlights include Nadal discussing the ups and downs of his relationship with the only coach he has ever known, his paternal uncle Toni – a hard taskmaster who helped channel his nephew’s famous mental strength, but who may have been excessively harsh on occasion. These passages have received much press coverage, most of which makes the book sound more controversial than it is, but when you read them as part of a larger narrative they don’t seem so shocking. The overall impression here is that of a young man who is still highly dependent on family (Nadal lives in a multi-storeyed house with his large clan) but who is also becoming conscious of the need to speak his own mind and break out of a parochial image.

All this adds up to a book that has many candid interludes mixed with some bland reportage and superfluous chronicling of career highlights. But in any case, Rafa might already be somewhat dated. When it was written, Nadal had just come off his finest season and it seemed his position at the top would be secure for some time, but things are no longer so rosy. He has had a fine 2011 by most standards, but he has been a distant second-best this year, having been overshadowed by Djokovic.

Whether this marks the beginning of a permanent decline or motivation for another comeback remains to be seen. Either way, there’s no doubt that Nadal will update this autobiography – or write a new one – when his career ends. The revised version, written with the benefit of distance, should be even more revealing.

[Finger blisters photo credit: Nadal News]


  1. Isnt this a ppc article?

  2. Note that Carlin is half Spanish and works for a Spanish language newspaper, so it is plausible that he translated Rafa's thoughts without embellishment.