The man who made Nadal

He lives in his family home, insists on driving the humblest of cars and always minds his manners. So how did Rafael Nadal grow up to be the politest, nicest star in sport? Ahead of Wimbledon, Paul Newman gains a unique insight from the uncle who has coached the World No 1 ever since he was four years old
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The Independent Online

It is the small hours of the morning at a deserted Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, and Rafael Nadal's day is finally done. The interviews are over following his dramatic five-set victory in the final over Roger Federer, he has showered and is anxious to return to his hotel for a few hours' sleep before the long flight home.

The only people still on the premises appear to be a handful of journalists and security guards, but as Nadal approaches the rear exit it is evident that many of the transport staff are still on site, having waited to greet the newly crowned champion. Nadal is clearly exhausted but goes into their office and offers a handshake or a hug to every one of them, thanking them for their help over the last fortnight.

Two months later, on the eve of the Monte Carlo Masters, Nadal is helping to promote the tournament outside the Prince's Palace, the official residence of Monaco's royal family. He is standing for a photo-shoot alongside Prince Albert, Andy Murray, the tournament director Zeljko Franulovic and two guards in ceremonial uniforms. Their photographs taken, the VIPs start to walk away. Nadal, however, turns round and goes back to thank and shake hands with the two guards.

These two snapshots from another tumultuous year for Nadal say much about the Spaniard's character and upbringing. The world No 1, who was practising at Wimbledon yesterday as he began preparations for the defence of his All England Club crown next week, is still a young man who has never thrown a racket, is unfailingly polite, sweeps the courts after his practice sessions on clay and shares with his parents the same Majorcan apartment where he grew up.

When Nadal beat Federer in last year's momentous Wimbledon final his parents, four grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles were watching on Centre Court. For most of the year, however, the only family member who travels with him is Toni, his uncle and, since he was four years old, his coach.

Toni, Rafael's father Sebastian and a third brother, Miguel Angel, are business partners. They own a window-making company, a restaurant, a café and an insurance company on the island of Majorca, where their family roots can be traced back to the 14th century. They own a five-storey block of flats in Manacor, their home town. Three generations of the family live there in different apartments: Rafael and his parents in one, Toni and his family in another, and a set of grandparents in a third.

When it became clear that Rafael was destined for great things the three brothers made a business decision. Toni, who had been a top 30 player in Spain and coached part-time at the local tennis club, would keep his share of their companies' profits but instead of working in the office would go on the road with Rafael, whose father would manage his son's financial affairs. That is how the family have operated ever since, with Toni working unpaid as Rafael's coach.

Toni has always stressed the need to maintain the family's standards in terms of hard work, respect for others and humility. When Rafael won a Mercedes sports car to go with his victory at a tournament in Stuttgart four years ago, Toni arranged for one of his nephew's sponsors, Kia, to provide him with a much humbler vehicle to drive around Majorca. The Mercedes stayed in the garage.

Watching Rafael train under Toni's watchful eye, the respect and affection are clear. They exchange few words. Both know this is time to work. Rafael is a tireless worker and practises with unremitting commitment.

After the practice session, Toni reflects on his nephew's character. "He received a good, normal education and he was brought up to do things properly," Toni says. "He was taught how to behave when he was young and I think that's the secret. It's not so easy to teach someone how to behave when they're older."

Did Rafael ever gone through a rebellious phase? "No. Never."

Does he always do as Toni says? "Yes. When he was young, especially, because I was the one in charge." And now? "Not necessarily," Toni says with a smile. "He's 23. It's not the same as when you're a child. You don't treat someone the same age when they're 23 as when they are 10. He's a man now and he can do what he wants."

Not that there is any sign of Rafael letting the family down. From an early age Toni told his nephew he would never tolerate racket-throwing, saying it showed a lack of respect for people who could not afford to buy proper tennis equipment, or blaming outside factors for defeats.

"He was always a very good pupil, because he was disciplined," Toni says. "I did not have to demand that. We have a relationship that is different to other players because I can talk about behaviour in a way that someone else could not tell him. Before he played, I saw on television so many players who went out with a bad face. I detested that. Rafael wants to win, but he wins with good manners. He has never thrown his racket. For me it is unbelievable how some people treat what they are given."

Nadal's dignity in victory – witness his humble acceptance speech after being crowned Australian Open champion as Federer wept uncontrollably by his side – is matched only by his dignity in defeat. When he lost to Robin Soderling in the recent French Open there were no tantrums and no excuses, although his subsequent withdrawal from the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club confirmed the extent of his long-term knee problems. His participation at Wimbledon next week is still not certain.

Away from tournaments, Nadal still practises at the Manacor Club de Tenis, signing in just like any other member when he books one of the tarmac courts. The club is across the street from the flat above a tennis equipment shop where Nadal spent his early childhood years.

On his rare breaks from training, Nadal's ideal day starts with a fishing expedition before breakfast, followed by a round of golf with his father, his mother's cooking for lunch, an afternoon siesta and an evening out with his friends. Throughout his rise to the top Nadal has had the same girlfriend, Maria Francesca Perello, a university student, and the same friends.

When he was 14 the family turned down overtures from the Spanish federation, who wanted Rafael to base himself in Barcelona. "The family thought he was doing well enough in Majorca," Toni says. "He had become world champion for his age group while growing up in Majorca. If everything's going well, why change? I think everyone was happier with that arrangement – including Rafa. The whole family decided it was better for him.

"From an early age I thought he could be very good, though maybe that was because I'm his uncle and that's what I wanted to believe. When he won the Balaeric Island championships [Rafael won the Under-12 division at the age of eight] was when I really started to believe. I think the fact that Carlos Moya, another Majorcan, had become a very successful tennis player meant that we thought it might be possible."

Arguably the biggest turning point came when Rafael was only eight. Until then he had always hit the ball two-handed on both sides. He did most things right-handed, but Toni suggested he should try playing left-handed. Most right-handers do not like playing "lefties", which would be one advantage, while Toni also reasoned that Rafael's double-handed backhand would benefit from his strong right hand.

"It wasn't easy," Toni says. "He started playing for just 20 minutes a day with one hand. We would then increase that every day until he felt ready to play with one hand all the time on his forehand."

The change was a masterstroke and has paved the way for a remarkable career. At just 23 Rafael has already won six Grand Slam titles and more than £14m in prize-money, though you would not guess the latter from his lifestyle.

Does he like being famous? "Not at all," Toni says. "Being famous isn't important to him." He adds: "There are many things that are more important than money. He likes living at home. He likes living in Majorca. The sort of things he likes to do aren't things that cost you money."

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