For a tennis player who is impressively vocal and aggressive behind the net, hunky Rafael Nadal is surprisingly demure off the court. There is almost a little-boy-lost quality about him. Nadal still lives with his parents and grandparents in a four-story apartment building in Manacor, Spain, where his favorite pastime is fishing.
Can the 20-year-old French Open winner, seeded second this year at Wimbledon, come into his own as a global tennis star? Before a recent afternoon practice, Nadal sat down with NEWSWEEK’s Ginanne Brownell to talk tennis, soccer and those screaming girls. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Sorry to hear about Spain losing to France 3-1 in the World Cup. Are you bummed?
Rafael Nadal: I was a bit disappointed yesterday. A lot of teams have been having bad luck at the end of their matches.
Who are you going to root for now that Spain is out?
Well, no one. But I do like Brazil and Argentina. I [also like] England, but they have to face Portugal, and that will be difficult. I like them as a team, they have good players but they need to score a bit more. That will make the difference. They are not scoring too much but they do have a good defense.
You ended up trouncing Adam Bogdanovich in the first round at Wimbledon, but you struggled a bit. Has your should injury been causing problems? Did you feel you played well against your first opponent?
My shoulder is OK now, and it is not causing me any problems. I did not think I was playing anything all that special. I was not playing my best, but now I am moving on to concentrate on my next matches.
So with Spain’s chances dashed for a World Cup victory, do you think you will be able to raise Spanish spirits and bring home that Wimbledon trophy?
I do not think I have the best chances. I am trying to improve my game, I need time, and [because I am young] I have that kind of time. My goal is to just play well and get better [at my game].
There has been speculation though that if you were to face Roger Federer here, you might have the psychological advantage over him. Does that raise your hopes?
No. I don’t think about playing against Federer. Because that would mean it would be in the final, and that would be very tough [to get there]. It may be difficult for me to reach the finals, not impossible, but it will be hard. I just want to win the next match ahead of me so I do not think about it more than that.
What is your reaction to people saying you are the next tennis star—following in the footsteps of the likes of John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and now of course Roger Federer?
I just think, “Thank you very much” for those nice words about me. But I do not think much about it. I just want to play.
How have you been handling some of the nastier comments that have been said about you recently? There were boos after the French Open win when the translation got mixed up and it made it sound that you were complimenting yourself when you were actually saying nice things about Federer?
I [have to] accept the bad and the good comments. Everyone can say whatever they want about me. It’s OK.
Why in the end did you choose tennis over soccer? As an adolescent you were excelling in both.
I won the European and Spanish [tennis] championships at 11 years old. And when I reached 13, I won the world championships, so I just decided this is what I wanted to play, so I stopped playing football then. But I still love to play it, though I really can’t play it so much now [because] of time [and injuries].
When you came onto the Wimbledon court for your first match, you got cheers and whistles and hoots from the women. Do you enjoy all that kind of attention?
Yeah, it’s nice to get the warmth from all people. That is really important for me.
Do you have fun playing, getting the crowds cheering for you?
Yeah. Wimbledon is one of the biggest tournaments in the world. It’s a good atmosphere, and it is a really special place.
Who are your tennis heroes—people you want to emulate?
I never had any heroes.
Yeah, I never had any idols in any sports. Sure I admire some people, but no one in particular. I like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Carlos Moya. I like a lot of people but not any idols.