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Vamos Rafa - The Unrelenting Power of an Iron Will

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Today, Sunday 9th June, Spanish tennis sensation Rafael Nadal made sporting history yet again by lifting the French Open at Roland Garros for an unfathomable 12th time. His 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 final victory over a valiant Dominic Thiem secured Nadal his 18th Grand Slam title at the age of 33, moving the Spaniard to within two of arch-rival Roger Federer on the all-time winners list. For one individual to rack up so many wins at a major event constitutes a Herculean feat virtually unprecedented in the annals of sporting greatness. Only Phil Taylor's 16 world darts titles can realistically compare in terms of numbers and sheer longevity, but what makes Nadal's achievement all the more remarkable is the manner in which he has repeatedly come back from injury to triumph time and again on the most physically gruelling of surfaces and in arguably the greatest ever era of men's tennis. It is, quite simply, a testament to the power of the human will and to what can be achieved through sheer dogged determination, hard work and an unrelenting never-say-die attitude.


I first became aware of Rafa at the start of his breakthrough year of 2005 in which he amassed an incredible 11 titles in one season, including his first French Open crown at the age of 19, and climbed from 51st in the ATP rankings to finish the year second only to Federer. Up until then I had been an ardent Andre Agassi supporter but was mindful that the great Las Vegas showman might not have many years left in the game. Agassi was 35 by that stage and afflicted by chronic back trouble which required regular cortisol injections and forced him to pick and choose the events he played. It was clear for all to see that his retirement was on the horizon so I was actively looking around for a potential replacement who could keep my interest in men's tennis alive for another decade at least. Almost as though a genie had overheard my thoughts, along came Nadal, just eighteen years of age and all boundless energy and fist-pumps, full of Spanish fire and flare and a relentless enthusiasm which was frankly infectious. With flowing locks, sleeveless shirts and unconventional pirata shorts which reached down to the ankle, he stood out from the rest of the rather faceless automatons of the time, strutting and bouncing about the court like a matador, with every scorching winner accompanied by a cry of "Vamos!" In an age of blandness, in which conformity had become the mind-numbing norm, Nadal was a welcome throwback to the heady days when sporting champions were larger-than-life icons, but with the added bonus that he behaved like a complete gentleman, not a brat.


Even then I wasn't expecting immediate results. He was surely "a prospect for the future" and "one to watch". Never in my wildest imagination could I have envisaged the rate at which he would start to vacuum up titles that year, in the process sowing the seeds of a fierce power struggle with Federer that would develop into one of the all-time great sporting rivalries. Nadal signalled his intentions early that season by claiming the first of his Masters Series titles on the red clay of Monte Carlo, and followed this up with victories in Barcelona and Rome, where he demonstrated superhuman resilience to recover from two breaks down in the final set to overcome the Argentinian Guillermo Coria in a gruelling five-hour battle which lasted deep into the evening and was eventually completed under the floodlights. By the time he arrived at Roland Garros in May that year, Rafa had established himself as one of the favourites for the title, despite never having set foot at the venue before in his young career. His path to the final wasn't all plain-sailing - the notoriously rowdy French crowd almost rioted when the young upstart had the temerity to beat home favourite Sebastian Grosjean in the fourth round - but throughout it all Nadal displayed a maturity and unflapability beyond his years and there was an air of inevitability about his relentless march towards the Coupe des Mousquetaires. When he came up against Federer in the semi-finals, all-knowing English commentators predicted smugly that the Swiss maestro would soon put this young whippersnapper in his place. Rafa proved them all wrong, celebrating his 19th birthday by dismissing Federer in four sets, before going on to overcome Mariano Puerta in the final. His epic reign over Phillipe-Chatriere Court had begun and he has scarcely relinquished his vice-like grip on the French Open crown in the 14 years since. From that moment on, Rafa was established as my firm favourite amongst the game's top flight. It was particularly poetic from my point of view that when Agassi eventually played his final match on Wimbledon's Centre Court 12 months later, it was Nadal who handed him his last defeat in an emotional "People's Saturday" match-up. In a particularly poignant moment, the torch had been passed from one charismatic people's champion to another and the mutual respect between the two was clear to see.


To put Nadal's record in some context, it's worth comparing a few numbers. The previous most prolific winner of the French Open was the ice-cool Swede Bjorn Borg, who amassed six consecutive titles there from 1974-81 to go with his five Wimbledon crowns. Nadal has therefore doubled the Swede's achievement. Federer, who many believe to be the greatest tennis player in history, has won at Roland Garros only once - due largely to Nadal's dominance there - whilst the great Pete Sampras never managed to win there at all. Nadal's 12 French Opens also stand superior to Federer's eight Wimbledon crowns - grass being the surface on which the Swiss has enjoyed his greatest success. Rafa's reputation as "The King of Clay" is further backed up by a staggering 59 career clay court titles. His 81 consecutive match wins on his favourite surface are a record for the longest single-surface winning streak in the Open Era, as are his 50 consecutive sets on clay. These feats are all the more remarkable for the fact that they have been achieved in such a highly competitive era. Nadal has had to contend with two other bona fide tennis Titans - Federer and Novak Djokovic - playing at the very height of their powers as well as occasional valiant challenges by Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. Certainly no-one could accuse the Spanish ace of having had it easy. When Martina Navratilova won her ninth women's singles title at Wimbledon in 1990, it was a feat the likes of which I never expected to see equalled or surpassed. Rafa has smashed even that and done so on a surface far more physically demanding than grass.


His ferocious style of play - chasing down every ball and grinding opponents into submission in interminable baseline rallies - has undoubtedly taken its toll on Nadal's body and has seen his career blighted by injury more than those of his closest rivals. Tendonitis of the knees has been a recurring issue over the years - at times he had to play with them both bandaged - and the Spaniard has also been afflicted by wrist injuries and back trouble in his time. Lesser men would have wilted under the disappointment of such setbacks but not Rafa. After each lengthy injury lay-off he has somehow found a way to forge his way back to the top with all the relentless force of an Exocet missile. At times it looked as though cracks might be appearing in his iron core, particularly during sustained periods in both 2011 and 2015 during which Djokovic appeared to have his measure. But each time Rafa has come back, stronger and more determined than ever, to wrest back his crown. He is the living embodiment of Kipling's famous poem 'If' (a quote from which ironically hangs above the door leading onto Wimbledon's Centre Court) and its advice: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same... you'll be a man, my son".

Celebrating La Decima in 2017 with Rafa, or his waxwork in Madam Tussauds at any rate!

Throughout it all the affable Spaniard has retained a humility which has endeared him to tennis audiences throughout the world (notwithstanding his early run-in with the partisan French crowd on Chatriere!). Always gracious in both victory and defeat, and never petulant, he - like Federer - has exemplified the spirit of true sportsmanship and presented himself as an idea role model for aspiring athletes everywhere. Win or lose, he always stays on court to satisfy the autograph-hunters. During Wimbledon fortnight it is not unusual for locals to encounter him in the supermarkets around SW19 where he "does his grocery" in order to cook for his family members and entourage. I finally had the pleasure of watching Nadal live when I attended the ATP World Tour finals at London's O2 Arena for the first time back in 2012 and was struck not just by the phenomenal intensity of his play but also by the beguiling authenticity of his willingness to engage with the massive crowd. His parents too were getting in on the act, taking selfies on the court, soaking up the atmosphere of the venue with an almost childlike innocence as though it was the first time they'd ever set foot on such a stage - which, of course, it wasn't. In a world where self-absorbed divas and prima donnas are becoming all too commonplace, Rafa has remained refreshingly unaffected by his success, fame and fortune. He still lives in the same five-storey apartment building as his parents and sister in his hometown of Manacor on the island of Mallorca and in 2007 created the Rafael Nadal Foundation to help underprivileged children. His Uncle Toni, who coached him for much of his career before handing over the reins to Carlos Moya in 2017 to focus on running Rafa's tennis academy, has famously said that his priority in training Rafa was to create a good human being first and a great tennis player second. All this matters because it totally shatters the age-old maxim that "nice guys finish last" and dismantles the widely-held belief that arrogance and a huge ego are among the essential qualities required to be a great champion. Rafa is living proof that humility and success are not mutually exclusive, and that's a lesson we can all learn from.


So how has he achieved his phenomenal success? What Nadal has in abundance, which so many others do not, is an iron will and an unshakeable ability to remain grounded in the moment. Whilst others allow misfortune or careless mistakes to fester, Rafa seems to have the ability to vanquish negative thoughts from his mind and to remain focused entirely on the current shot of the current point. He doesn't dwell on the previous game that got away, or allow himself to think ahead to the moment of potential victory or defeat. He is seldom anywhere other than rooted in the Now - the present moment. That ability to prevent the mind from wandering, and to take every single shot as it comes without emotional entanglement, is the absolute key to sporting success. It enables the mind to become focused like a laser on the job in hand. When someone can achieve that cocoon of concentration, where stray thoughts and external distractions are completely frozen out, that's when they access the high-performance state known as being "in the zone". Time slows down for them and they appear to have complete freedom to select their shots and pick them off at will. It's an ability shared by all great sporting champions, whether that be Lionel Messi, Ronnie O'Sullivan or Tiger Woods in his pomp. Navratilova had it, and so too did Federer in his prime. Phil 'The Power' Taylor was so firmly anchored in the zone that he was virtually unbeatable at darts for two decades. But never has that iron will and ability to remain present been more obviously in evidence than during Nadal's epic Wimbledon final victory over Federer in 2008 in which he held his nerve and concentration in the face of fading light and a Federer comeback to triumph 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 in a contest regarded by many as the greatest tennis match in history.

Federer, who is on the wrong end of a 15-24 career head-to-head against Nadal (and 2-14 on clay), was among the Spaniard's victims yet again during this month's French Open campaign, being summarily dispatched in straight sets in a semi-final which had eerie echoes of their 2005 last-four clash. The Swiss legend would by now be entitled to be heartily sick of Rafa, who has been a constant thorn in his side for the past 14 years and still poses a very real threat to his place in the history books. But he demonstrated his own undoubted class in defeat and was nothing but wholesome in his praise for the Spaniard. "There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him," said Federer ruefully. "I don’t even know who I need to go search for to go practice with somebody who plays like him. It’s just amazing how he plays from deep and then is able to bounce back and forth from the baseline. You get to a point where you’re just happy to make shots and not look ridiculous. It’s that bad. He played in an incredible way. He has incredible abilities on clay."


Those seeking a living example of the possibilities of what can be achieved by an iron will and focused concentration need look no further than Nadal and his formidable achievements at Roland Garros in particular. Positive role models serve not only as inspiration but also as templates for us to follow as we reach for our own dreams. But it's not just professional athletes who can access and benefit from this state. As I discussed in a previous blog, Meditation - The Power of Now, the high-performance state is available to anyone and everyone and can be used to unleash a person's full potential in any field of their choosing. It can be accessed through numerous different practices, including meditation, hypnosis and many of the games used in New Code NLP. The key ingredient is the ability to maintain present moment awareness in which your mind is prevented from drifting into either past or future. Is it easy to hold this state for long periods? No, but as Nadal's success has shown, the rewards are bountiful for those prepared to put in the time and effort to achieve it. One of the reasons Rafa has been able to maintain such a strong psychological state for so long probably lies in the fact that he operates from such a fundamental baseline of wellbeing. Away from the bright lights and competition of the professional tennis circuit, he likes nothing better than chilling out with his family back on Manacor, playing golf or fishing. He has been dating the same girlfriend, María Francisca Perelló, for 14 years and they are due to marry later this year. He likes simple pursuits, doesn't court controversy, doesn't throw tantrums, smash racquets or abuse umpires. The sheer simplicity of his life, the focus on family and a close-knit circle of friends, is likely to be a key factor in his balanced and well-adjusted personality. Anyone who has followed Rafa's career will know that the entourage in his box has remained virtually unchanged in 15 years. While other players have chopped and changed coaches, personal trainers and agents, the faces in Nadal's box have remained constant - the coaching team of Uncle Toni, Francisco Roig and Carlos Moya, agent Carlos Costa and physical therapist Titin Maymo along with various other members of the Nadal family. One has always had the sense that they are a happy and contented unit and happiness is a key component in performance. We produce our best when we're enjoying ourselves and when our bodies are in a tension-free, relaxed state. That's when you're most likely to enter "the zone".


We all have an inner Nadal just waiting to be unleashed - an uninhibited fist-pumping superhero with the power to rule a kingdom with an iron grip. At Phoenix we specialise in teaching people to access this high performance state in ways that can be used to unleash their full potential. We can't promise that you'll win the French Open 12 times, but we can nurture you towards becoming the best at whatever it is you love to do. So whether you're looking to improve your performance in a particular sport, in business, the performing arts, or any other area of your life, we can show you how to become the best performer you can possibly be and start living the life of your dreams. As Rafa has proven, it doesn't have to mean becoming a ruthless, egotistical brat who tramples over others to get what they want. Far from it. The greatest success and popularity comes with demonstrating grace and humility - qualities the Spaniard has in abundance and which make him a perfect hero to model. So if you're interested in learning how to hone your will to Nadal-like levels of intensity, then check out our website at www.phoenixcoaching.co.uk or drop us an email at info@phoenixcoaching.co.uk to find out more about how we can help you to achieve optimum performance. We don't encourage ego, we don't countenance self-serving methods of getting to the top and we don't believe in "every man for himself". We follow Rafa's philosophy of respect and humility - a philosophy grounded in a deep, underlying wellbeing where values such as hard work, resilience and sportsmanship are rewarded. It's worked for him and it can work for you too.


It's difficult to put it any better than the great Andre Agassi himself who in 2016, when Nadal was bidding for his 10th Roland Garros crown, penned the Spaniard a heartfelt letter of support which read: “It took me most of my career to accomplish the herculean task of winning the French Open one time. Watching you attempt to win it for the tenth time is not only remarkable... it is inspiring. You make me believe in life that anything is achievable and nothing is impossible. Go get ’em.” In the end it took Rafa another twelve months to secure that coveted 10th French Open - La Decima - but having done so he has since banked another two more. Who knows how many more titles he'll he add to his remarkable collection before he's through? I, for one, won't be making any predictions! Here at Phoenix we'd like to congratulate Rafa on another historic French Open triumph and wish him all the best for this year's Wimbledon campaign and beyond.



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