Rafael Nadal: Scared Little Boy By Dominic Bliss
Dogs, spiders, storms, motorbikes, sleeping in the dark... is there anything Rafael Nadal isn't scared of? Dominic Bliss finds out how this Spanish player's bold exterior masks an interior anxiety.
On court Rafa Nadal has all the courage and ferocity of a raging bull. He's one of the most daunting players you could face. But get him out of his comfort zone - off the field of play - and there's something of the scared little boy about him.
It seems bizarre that this 6ft 1inch muscle-bound champion, with nine Grand Slams under his belt might suffer from even the slightest lack of confidence. However, just look at the evidence. It doesn't take a Freudian psycho-analyst to realise that all those obsessive court rituals are camouflaging possible psychological problems. Some have even suggested the player suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
First up is his change-of-ends bottle-arranging routine. Not only does he line up all his drinks bottles symmetrically next to his chair, but all the labels must be facing the same direction - apparently towards the baseline from which he is due to play. In between points he is fastidious about not stepping on the lines of the court. Any psychotherapist will tell you these are classic symptoms of OCD.
Then there are his clothing rituals. According the The Sun newspaper, he refuses to wear socks that rise higher than 15cm above his shoe. His bandanna "is pulled out of his kitbag an hour before play, but he doesn't put it on until just before he takes to the court". After each point he religiously towels down his face and left arm.
But it's Rafa's pre-serve ritual that really takes the biscuit. To the chagrin of both opponents and umpires, this can be interminable: adjust sweatbands, adjust bandanna, tuck hair behind ears, bounce ball exactly five times; and then, of course, there's his universally mocked underpant-pulling performance. This has nothing to do with inferior shorts - after all Nike have spent millions developing some of the world's best tennis kit. It's just another one of his nervous tics. He doesn't even seem to be aware that, live in front of thousands of spectators, and millions more worldwide on TV, he picks his pants out of the crack of his backside before every service. Often again between first serve and second serve.
Here's what his mother Ana Maria Parera says about her son's posterior picking: "You don't know how many pairs of underwear people have given him believing that the ones he has do not fit well," she revealed in a Spanish magazine. "One person sent me a letter saying we should shop for larger sizes and enclosed four pairs. It's a nervous tic and the more nervous he is... He has had it all his life. I think that he has a bottom a bit bigger than he should have."
Big bottoms aside, and God knows he needs a big bottom to propel his large frame around the court so speedily, Rafa also suffers from multiple phobias. Even as a child he had an irrational fear of thunder and lightning, something which was cleverly exploited by his coach (back then and still now), Uncle Toni. Toni told his nephew that if he didn't focus 100 per cent on his game, he would incur the wrath of the thunder gods. The ploy worked every time.
But fear of thunder is just the start. "I am afraid of a lot of things," Rafa admits. "A dog. I could be afraid of a dog that's upset, for example." Arachnophobia is an issue, too. "I hate spiders," Rafa once blogged on The Times website during the Australian Open. "Not sure if it is frightened [sic] but agggggg. Thank God I have not seeing [sic] any here. We are in Melbourne so no creepy creature where we are."
Then there's motorbikes. "I have a motorbike, but it was a present and I do not use it," he told International Tennis Magazine. "I don't ride it. I am scared about motorcycles. That's very dangerous. We only have one life."
However, the greatest insight into Rafa's weaknesses is his irrational fear of the dark. "Being home alone at night makes me a bit nervous," he told Vogue magazine. "If I'm at home I have to sleep on the sofa. I can't face going to bed. I'm there with the TV on and all the lights on. I'm not very brave about anything in life. In tennis, yes. In everything else, not very."
His mother, who rather cutely reveals that Rafa has a collection of stuffed animals alongside his tennis trophies, once told how her son called her up in the middle of the night in a panic. "He called me and said 'Mum, we have a problem'," she remembers. "'There's a power failure and I'm scared to death.' I had to tell him which drawer the batteries for the torches were in."
Press Rafa on the subject and he admits to bouts of severe anxiety. "On the tennis courts, maybe on the outside I look fearless, but on the inside, I'm scared," he once said. Another time he stated: "I think fear is a part of life."
It's interesting that 26-year-old Rafa should still live in the family home. Granted, it's a large apartment block in the Mallorcan town of Manacor, and Rafa has the run of an entire floor, but nevertheless, he still shares the building with the rest of his family. Apparently his grandparents are on the ground floor, uncle Toni and his family on the first floor, Rafa's mum on the second, and the player himself on the third.
A touch parochial, you might say, especially when you consider that fellow world top-five players Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic flew the nest years ago. But a close-knit family set-up is obviously crucial to Rafa's well-being. Indeed, when his parents separated in 2009, the Mallorcan was devastated - and his tennis suffered as a result.
He even keeps his love life close to home. For the last few years he's been stepping out with local student Maria Francisca 'Xisca' Perello. While she's no frumpy girl-next-door (quite the opposite; just do a Google search for proof), it's a little strange that Rafa hasn't had his head turned by the legions of his female celebrity admirers. After the Spaniard appeared in the very steamy video for Colombian singer Shakira's hit record Gypsy, for example, there were rumours that the duo might be romantically linked, which Rafa quickly stifled.
But what's wrong with a bit of parochialism, you might ask? So what if he lives in the family home, dates a local girl, employs his uncle as coach and sleeps with the light on? It certainly hasn't done his tennis any damage.
Sure, he could move to Monaco, step out with super-models and drive fast cars. But, as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.