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The first thing you notice about Rafael Nadal is the ritual—the repetitive habits, tics, twitches, and jolts that precede every point. From the moment he steps onto the court until the match ends, Nadal performs his kinetic routines with the mindless precision of someone who has spent a lifetime on an assembly line.
Nadal always enters the court with one racquet in his left hand, his accessory bag slung over his left shoulder, his tennis bag, containing five carefully numbered Babolat “Pure Aero” racquets strung precisely at 55.11 lbs. over his right. He waves to the crowd with his right hand held high, lowers it, and then waves again with his racquet, this time raised no higher than his shoulder. As he walks Muppet-mouthed to his seat, he strides confidently, face down and brow furrowed, stutter-stepping momentarily so he can cross over the sideline with his right foot—always with his right foot—without touching the line. He then places his bags on the bench and carefully turns his tournament ID badge face up, his photo gazing into the sky as if probing it for hints of rain. Facing the stands, he then hops high-kneed as he strips off his warmup top, revealing chiseled deltoids and veined biceps that provoke gasps from the women in the stands.
In a subtle but assuredly first act of aggression, while the tournament officials and his opponent stand at the net for the ceremonial coin toss to see who will serve first, Nadal remains seated on the bench and makes them wait. Bouncing his heels nervously, he pulls a gel packet from his bag, rips it open halfway, folds it over, right to left, and then with four fingers, strips the gel into his mouth. He takes one sip from his recovery bottle and places it on the court, angling its label so it faces the service T. He takes another sip, this time from the water bottle, places it precisely six inches behind his energy bottle, and again rotates the label at the same angle so it too faces in the same direction. He then runs to the net (careful to step over the sideline with his right foot) and, as he awaits the coin toss, hops from foot-to-foot, antipodally, like a boxer, pausing only for the requisite ceremonial photo. Having won the toss, he taps his racquet against his opponent’s, quickly turns his back, sprints diagonally to the ad (left) side of the court, retrieves two balls from the ball boy, then sprints along the baseline to the deuce (right) side of the court to retrieve a third ball. He rolls all the balls in his right hand, stutter-steps toward the service T, and then, without looking, taps the fluffiest of the three back to ball boy on the deuce side and places the extra ball in his pocket.
With the shot clock’s 25 seconds ticking away, Rafa prepares to serve. He looks furtively back and forth, then, while bouncing the ball against the court surface with his racquet, with his free hand, he picks his knickers from his natal cleft, pulls his shoulder epaulets—first left, then right—pinches his nose, tucks the hair behind his left ear, pinches his nose again, tucks the hair behind his right ear, places the ball in his right hand and, while looking down, bounces it 10-12 times on the court until he catches it against his racquet Y and briefly looks at his target. With a buck-toothed grimace and one second left on the shot clock, he looks up, tosses the ball skyward approximately twelve inches in front of his body, extends his right arm high, his fingers splayed palm up, his eyes tracking the ball, his legs, body, and racquet loading so he can uncoil at the perfect moment of maximum power—that perfect moment, when leaping off the court, his racquet pronating and the ball descending to a point two inches below its apex, he strikes the ball and expels his breath with an eerie sound—part grunt, part cry—that fades only when he follows through and lands forward into the court, perfectly squared and ready to hit back the return.
Armchair psychologists who have never interacted with Nadal off court worry that this routine is a clear manifestation of a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, his actions aimed at reducing anxiety or preventing what he dreads more than anything else: losing. Nadal, however, begs to differ. When asked once about his habits, Rafa responded that his actions are merely his method of preparing for the laborious task ahead of him. “It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.”
To anyone who has watched Rafa for a long time, Nadal’s rationale is sound, his rituals merely an extension of a regimented training schedule that began at age 4 and evolved into a regime of four hours of tennis and two hours of fitness every day, six days a week. Accounting for injuries and holidays, a conservative estimate of Rafa’s training schedule reveals that since he turned pro in 2001, he has hit approximately 25,660,000 tennis balls, struck 3,600,000 serves, and logged more than 180,000 miles in practice alone. Add to this regimen weight and elastic band training, lengthy stretching sessions, dietary restrictions, and hours of watching his opponents on film, and you begin to understand that Rafa’s life has been one of extreme self-discipline, his on-court habits little more than a synecdoche of a life devoted to interminable repetition.
Others argue that Nadal’s effort to seek “order” is an entirely healthy approach to playing the game. Those who have played tennis competitively understand that imagining a match unfold positively in your favor is crucial to success. Visualizing order, conjuring up the next winning point, and recalling past triumphs silences the monkey mind and boosts self-confidence, which, in turn, enhances execution and performance. Such cognitive conditioning has in fact become an integral part of elite tennis coaching. What separates the world’s top five tennis players from the next twenty has less to do with skill, training, and diet than it does with their ability to imagine success and to specialize in amnesia when points don’t go as planned.
Nadal has in fact perfected the art of forgetting. Every time Rafa purges the memory of his last bad point, his positive thinking translates into good outcomes. As he performs his mindless ritual between points, this autopilot default mode allows him 10-15 seconds to generate a positive vision of the next point. In other words, in that interlude between points, Rafa tries again to imagine the future into being. As he does so, he conserves energy. He sharpens his focus. His muscles relax. His breathing and heart rates slow down, and the jitters vanish.
Unfortunately, imagining how a match will unfold and how it actually develops are two different things, and all of the mental training in the world cannot fully protect one from the unexpected. Part of the problem is that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Nadal’s greatest rivals and two of the most gifted players ever to play the game, also possess that strange amnesiac ability to forget and focus, particularly Djokovic, who, in his own storied career, has won 75% of his five-set matches, marking him as the greatest clutch player in history.
The other problem is that despite all of the training and focus, muscle memory carries one only so far and sometimes even the best players have off days and cannot execute shots. One day the legs are heavy. On other days the weather conditions affect the court surface, speeding up or slowing down the ball contrary to a player’s strengths and preferences. And sometimes the opponent across the net is simply in the “zone,” which in tennis means that a player’s footspeed and ball-strike timing are so thoroughly synchronized that the speed of the game slows to a crawl and the ball enlarges to the point where winners exceed errors by a ratio of 6:1.
It is during these moments of adversity, when chaos invades his imagination and disrupts the ideal game, that Rafa truly distinguishes his genius on the court. Two qualities separate him from every other player on the men’s tour. The first is hardly news, namely that Rafa adjusts his game mid-match better than anyone who has ever played. Unlike the famously stubborn Federer, who seldom deviates from the aggressive tactics that have won him twenty majors, when Nadal is down in a match, he makes subtle adjustments, varying his serve targets, elevating the height of his shots, stepping inside the baseline to command better court position, integrating his very respectable slice backhand more frequently. The goal of these subtle adjustments is to keep his opponents off balance by becoming less predictable.
The strategy is equivalent to that of an accomplished big-league pitcher. Gerrit Cole, for example, commands at least four different pitches, which, when thrown properly, confound elite hitters. Most often, Cole relies on his best pitch, his four-seam fastball, which he blazes by the batter at 97-100 mph. Depending on the batter’s skills and tendencies, he will then follow that pitch with an 87 mph-slider down and in. From time to time, though less frequently, he’ll throw in a two-seam fastball at 93 mph that breaks down and away, or hurl a 12 to 6 curve ball or changeup that falls out of the strike zone at a comparatively slow 83 mph. By varying his pitch speed and location, locating his targets inside-out and up and down, Cole keeps opposing hitters guessing and off balance, inducing flailing swings that often result in frustrated players snapping their bats on their thighs.
A good example of how Rafa adjusts to his opponent’s strengths occurred in the 2020 French Open final against Novak Djokovic, which Rafa won handily by a score of 6-0, 6-2, 7-5. In light of their previous French Open meeting, a quarter-final match in 2015, which Djokovic won easily, Rafa’s dismantling of the Serbian star in straight sets was surprising. A careful study of both matches, however, reveals that in 2020 Rafa adjusted his game ever so slightly to neutralize Djokovic’s greatest weapon, his two-handed backhand, which he can strike with great velocity and in any direction at will.
Unlike their previous match, Rafa hit his cross-court backhands and down-the-line forehands with a higher lob and depth, forcing Djokovic to backpedal to the baseline and hit his two-hander at shoulder, rather than hip height, thus preventing Nole from torquing his shots with the high velocity and acute angles that have made his game so lethal. The other adjustment Rafa made was to adapt to Djokovic’s proclivity for drop shots. Unlike their earlier contest, for most of the match, Rafa occupied a court position one step closer to Djokovic, just inside the baseline—far enough away for him to extend their customary baseline rallies, but close enough to run-down and counter the most gentle attack stroke in tennis. As Rafa lobbed and sliced, parried and ran around his backhand whenever possible, he kept Djokovic off balance all afternoon, setting up his formidable topspin forehand, which, when struck properly, rotates the ball an astonishing 54 times per second. Thumped with such overwhelming power, the ball bounces high and leaps off the court with such force that it flexes even the stiffest composite racquet. Once Rafa established his rhythm and dominating court position, Djokovic had no chance, especially on clay, the surface Rafa has dominated since 2005.
The other quality that makes Rafa such a breathtaking player is his unsurpassed tenacity, whose origin is far more difficult to explain. Other tennis greats have possessed an intense desire to win—Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Jimmy Connors and David Ferrer immediately come to mind—but nobody in the history of the game has ever played each point, like Nadal has, as if it were his last. No matter the score or opponent, Rafa always exerts maximum effort, expending himself and running down balls with reckless abandon, even when shots look hopelessly beyond reach and prudence might have been a better strategy.
A case in point occurred in the US Open in 2019. On the second to last point of a rather routine quarter-final match against Marin Cilic, Nadal pulled off one of the most improbable shots in tennis history. Up 5-2 in the fourth and deciding set, Rafa served down the service box T. Cilic, a right-handed player, returned a scorching backhand deep, just inside the baseline, to Nadal’s forehand, forcing Nadal to hit the ball slightly off-balance. Without enough time to load his weight and fully turn his hips into the shot, Nadal’s forehand landed uncharacteristically short, just beyond the service line. An experienced former champion, Cilic dines on short balls, and, taking advantage of Nadal’s error, he executed a perfect forehand, deep into the deuce corner, and properly followed his shot into the net. Sprinting hard to the deuce court, Rafa tracked the ball down, lunged and struck a floating one-hander down the sideline while simultaneously pirouetting 360 degrees. His rotation complete, Nadal then began sprinting to the opposite corner of the court before Cilic had even struck his next shot. As Nadal had anticipated, Cilic hit a perfectly angled volley just inside the sideline, which bounced three feet beyond the doubles line and descended to a point six inches above the acrylic court surface, which is where a lunging Rafa flicked his racquet and curled the ball around the net post, landing it just inside the sideline for a winner as he slid another three feet and the cheering crowd rose to its feet in delayed comprehension of having witnessed the impossible.
Undeniably, Rafa’s long injury history partially explains his extraordinary tenacity. More muscular and less flexible than the prototypical elite player, Rafa has placed more strain on his joints than any player in the Open Era, with the exception perhaps of Andy Murry, another muscular player whose hips have foundered under the vertical pounding from years of play. Though incredibly entertaining to watch, Rafa’s style—his acrobatic contortions, off-balance hijinks, untimely slides, and court dives—has taken such a serious toll on his body that even Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and longtime coach, speculated in 2019 that Nadal’s career would soon be over. Rafa is “not a tennis player,” he exclaimed, “but an injured person who plays tennis.”
Although Rafa would beg to differ, the facts suggest otherwise. Since he turned pro in 2001, Rafa has missed or withdrawn from 11 majors. To put that number in perspective, Roger Federer didn’t miss a single grand slam tournament for seventeen straight years, until an unfortunate back injury sidelined him when he was nearly 35. Similarly, Novak Djokovic has missed only two grand slams in his entire career (one absence self-imposed by his refusal to accept the Covid vaccine). When you consider that Nadal has won 30% of the grand slam tournaments he has ever entered, you begin to realize just how significantly those injuries have impacted his career. If he had remained healthy and held true to form, Nadal’s total number of major victories would surely be appreciably higher than the record 21 he now owns.
Well aware that he is playing on borrowed time, Rafa thus seizes each moment and plays each point as if his last, because, realistically speaking, it might be. Nadal, however, remains undeterred. Ironically, as his aching knees and congenitally damaged left foot decay much faster than his spirit, Nadal seems more compelled than ever to risk further injury, to tape his bloody and calloused fingers one more time and drag his battered body to victory, sustaining the illusion that he can defeat time and forever ward off the inevitable moment when his body finally fails his spirit and he has to pack up his racquet and call it a career.
While Rafa’s deep love for the game and his self-awareness of playing mortality partially explain his ferocious competitive spirit, they do not fully account for it. All elite athletes possess a deep love for the games they play, and eventually even the very best become aware that their physical longevity—the shelf life of peak performance—expires ever more rapidly toward the end of their careers. Even so, there are exceptions. How, for example, can one explain Sugar Ray Leonard overcoming Marvin Hagler’s furious onslaught of punches, Tom Brady’s Super Bowl victory at the age of 43, or Michael Jordan’s perfect record in NBA championship titles?
Unlike other gifted competitors, each of these athletes shares with Nadal a rare quality that transcends their physical abilities and drives them toward perfection. Some might call it soul. Others, pneuma or the élan vital. In Rafa’s case, the source of his fierce inner drive emerges from the soil of Spain itself, in a performative quality the Spanish call duende.
Loosely translated as the “master of the house,” el duende in Spanish and Latin American folklore refers to the mischievous sprites or goblins that invade a house and disrupt the lives within. More recently, el duende has evolved into an artistic principle that describes the deep emotional authenticity of southern Spanish art and performance, particularly as it is expressed in flamenco. Resonant with the history of Iberian Roma (Gypsy) culture, an itinerant group that suffered unspeakable persecution at the hands of both Spanish and Arab rulers, el duende’s power derives from its practitioners’ acknowledgement of suffering and their acceptance of the ever-present danger of death.
According to Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain’s most beloved modernist poet who was assassinated by Franco’s Nationals in 1933, to have el duende means that an artist possesses a quality of spirit that does not descend externally from muses or angels but arises deep from within. In his 1933 lecture, “Theory and Play of Duende,” Lorca defines this evocative spirit as a “force, not a labor, a struggle, not a thought” that “surges up inside, from the soles of the feet.” El duende is a sensation that “burns the blood like powdered glass,” that “exhausts” and “rejects all the sweet geometry we understand.” The duende is available to anyone, and the greatest artists acquire it by struggling against the darker forces of life that threaten one’s annihilation: “For every man . . . every artist. . . every step that he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle he undergoes with his duende.”
It is not surprising that Lorca’s archetype of duende is the matador, the figure of the artist who exists on the brink of death every time he performs. “The bull has his own orbit: the toreador his,” writes Lorca, “and between orbit and orbit lies the point of danger, where the vertex of terrible play exists.” The matador “who is bitten by the duende gives a lesson in Pythagorean music and makes us forget he is throwing his heart at the horns.”
Although bullfighting is surely one of the cruelest spectacles on earth, with thousands of bulls annually brought to the verge of extreme mental and physical torment before they are killed, the bullfight is so ingrained in Spanish culture that Nadal could not help but be shaped by this tradition. Although Nadal has publicly expressed distaste for the bull ring, he nonetheless honors its tradition of courage and artistry by expending himself each and every point, by “throwing his heart at the horns” of his greatest rivals. Without ever resorting to bullfighting’s barbarity, Rafa venerates the courage of the matador who, when performing properly, risks his life by humbling himself before a raging bull. To live is to suffer. To suffer is to build humility and the scaffold upon which the great artist expresses himself.
The humility and vulnerability that Rafa has always displayed on and off the court belies the many portraits that have described him as an icon of masculinity. In 2006, David Foster Wallace’s “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” portrayed Nadal as “totally martial,” a “mesomorphic” player with “Kabuki self-exhortations” designed to intimidate his opponents. Similarly, in 2009, Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius portrayed Nadal as a study in “hypermuscular hypermasculinity,” as a player who, embodying “Iberian bravado and passion,” punishes his opponents mercilessly with an “unapologetic, whoomphing brutality.” Unfortunately, absent from these portraits were words such as authenticity, courage, perseverance, gratitude, restraint, respect, generosity, and empathy.
Such hyperbole of course makes for good press, and setting up stark contrasts between Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic undoubtedly heightens the competitive drama of any match and bolsters ratings. Rafa certainly doesn’t possess the fluid, efficient grace of Federer or the mechanistic precision of Djokovic. But to portray Rafa as Caliban is to ignore the fact that he has never, in frustration, broken a single racquet, that he always respectfully praises his opponents before he speaks of himself, that he once paused a match until a wailing girl in the stands reunited with her lost mother, that he consoled a weeping Roger Federer after Roger’s heartbreaking loss to him at the 2009 Australian Open, that working beside total strangers, he shoveled mud from flood-ravaged Majorcan homes, or that while others complained about strict pandemic quarantine protocols, vaccination requirements, and inadequate food at the Australian Open, Rafa was busy raising millions of dollars with NBA player Pau Gasol to aid Spanish victims of the coronavirus. Negating these absurd journalistic caricatures, the most consistent emotion Rafa has displayed throughout his career is not the narcissist’s swagger or bluster, but a deep compassion for everyone he encounters.
In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway argued that “the English and the French live for life” and that for the English death “is not a thing to think of, to consider, to mention, to seek, or to risk.” In Spain, and particularly in Andalusia, however, the natives “know death is an inescapable reality; the one thing any man may be sure of; the only security. . . that transcends modern comforts.” This ethos, born from a region that has been alternately occupied by European Catholics, Goths, Berber Muslims, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, emerges from a complex history rife with the clash of empires and its attendant suffering. Like Lorca, Hemingway understood that this region, with such a long memory of pain and misfortune, could not help but produce artists who unite suffering and beauty in their acts of creation.
As Rafael Nadal attempts to win his unprecedented 14th French Open title, whether he wins or loses, we can rest assured that he will dazzle us with an athletic beauty that emerges from this ethos. Struggling with his duende in pursuit of perfection, he will once again honor us with the Andalusian tradition he has inherited and, suspending time, fool us momentarily into believing that like the great artists and poets of his native land he too is immortal.
Robert Bernard Hass is a professor of English at Pennsylvania Western University and a PTR certified tennis professional. He is the author of Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science and the poetry collection, Counting Thunder.