Today we feature the first part of a two-part special. The following is an excerpt from Rafael Nadal's new autobiography. The second part will appear on tennisworldusa.org tomorrow. Excerpted from RAFA by Rafael Nadal and John Carlin.
Copyright (c) 2011 Rafael Nadal and John Carlin. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. The silence, that’s what strikes you when you play on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. You bounce the ball soundlessly up and down on the soft turf; you toss it up to serve; you hit it and you hear the echo of your own shot.
And of every shot after that. Clack, clack; clack, clack. The trimmed grass, the rich history, the ancient stadium, the players dressed in white, the respectful crowds, the venerable tradition— not a billboard advertisement in view— all combine to enclose and cushion you from the outside world.
The feeling suits me; the cathedral hush of the Centre Court is good for my game. Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing.
If I made a mistake on a previous point, forget it; should a thought of victory suggest itself, crush it. The silence of the Centre Court is broken when a point’s done, if it’s been a good point— because the Wimbledon crowds can tell the difference— by a shock of noise; applause, cheers, people shouting your name.
I hear them, but as if from some place far off. I don’t register that there are fifteen thousand people hunched around the arena, tracking every move my opponent and I make. I am so focused I have no sense at all, as I do now reflecting back on the Wimbledon final of 2008 against Roger Federer, the biggest match of my life, that there are millions watching me around the world.
I had always dreamt of playing here at Wimbledon. My uncle Toni, who has been my coach all my life, had drummed into me from an early age that this was the biggest tournament of them all. By the time I was fourteen, I was sharing with my friends the fantasy that I’d play here one day and win.
So far, though, I’d played and lost, both times against Federer— in the final here the year before, and the year before that. The defeat in 2006 had not been so hard. I went out onto the court that time just pleased and grateful that, having just turned twenty, I’d made it that far.
Federer beat me pretty easily, more easily than if I’d gone out with more belief. But my defeat in 2007, which went to five sets, left me utterly destroyed. I knew I could have done better, that it was not my ability or the quality of my game that had failed me, but my head.
And I wept after that loss. I cried incessantly for half an hour in the dressing room. Tears of disappointment and self- recrimination. Losing always hurts, but it hurts much more when you had your chance and threw it away. I had beaten myself as much as Federer had beaten me; I had let myself down and I hated that.
I had flagged mentally, I had allowed myself to get distracted; I had veered from my game plan. So stupid, so unnecessary. So obviously, so exactly what you must not do in a big game. My uncle Toni, the toughest of tennis coaches, is usually the last person in the world to offer me consolation; he criticizes me even when I win.
It is a mea sure of what a wreck I must have been that he abandoned the habit of a lifetime and told me there was no reason to cry, that there would be more Wimbledons and more Wimbledon finals. I told him he didn’t understand, that this had probably been my last time here, my last chance to win it.
I am very, very keenly aware of how short the life of a professional athlete is, and I cannot bear the thought of squandering an opportunity that might never come again. I know I won’t be happy when my career is over, and I want to make the best of it while it lasts.
Every single moment counts— that’s why I’ve always trained very hard— but some moments count for more than others, and I had let a big one pass in 2007. I’d missed an opportunity that might never come again; just two or three points here or there, had I been more focused, would have made all the difference.
Because victory in tennis turns on the tiniest of margins. I’d lost the last and fifth set 6– 2 against Federer, but had I just been a little more clearheaded when I was 4– 2 or even 5– 2 down, had I seized my four chances to break his serve early on in the set (instead of seizing up, as I did), or had I played as if this were the first set and not the last, I could have won it.
There was nothing Toni could do to ease my grief. Yet he turned out, in the end, to be right. Another chance had come my way. Here I was again, just one year later. I was determined now that I’d learn the lesson from that defeat twelve months earlier, that what ever else gave way this time, my head would not.
The best sign that my head was in the right place now was the conviction, for all the nerves, that I would win. At dinner with family and friends and team members the night before, at the house we rent when I play at Wimbledon, across the road from the All England Club, mention of the match had been off- limits.
I didn’t expressly prohibit them from raising the subject, but they all understood well enough that, whatever else I might have been talking about, I was already beginning to play the match in a space inside my head that, from here on in until the start of play, should remain mine alone.
I cooked, as I do most nights during the Wimbledon fortnight. I enjoy it, and my family thinks it’s good for me. Something else to help settle my mind. That night I grilled some fish and served some pasta with shrimps. After dinner I played darts with my uncles Toni and Rafael, as if this were just another evening at home in Manacor, the town on the Spanish island of Mallorca where I have always lived.
I won. Rafael claimed later that he’d let me win, so I’d be in a better frame of mind for the final, but I don’t believe him. It’s important for me to win, at everything. I have no sense of humor about losing.
At a quarter to one I went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep. The subject we had chosen not to talk about was the only one on my mind. I watched films on TV and only dozed off at four in the morning. At nine I was up. It would have been better to have slept a few hours more, but I felt fresh, and Rafael Maymó, my physical therapist, who is always in attendance, said it made no difference— that the excitement and the adrenaline would carry me through, however long the game went on.