My first memory of Rafa is from 2002 while attending the ITF junior event that happens right before Wimbledon in London (I was coaching the IMG players who were competing on the event). The rumor was out among the players that Rafael Nadal (then 16 years old) was going to get a wild card into the Wimbledon junior event. He had not played ITF junior events, so a lot of us did not know much about him other than the fact that he had a couple of good wins in Challenger level events (midway level) professional tournaments. I watched a few of his matches during the Wimbledon week (he lost in a three sets battle against a player from Algeria in the semifinals), and my impression of him was that he was simply FEARLESS. The fact that he was coming to play on grass from Spain did not change at all his approach about swinging with incredible acceleration to every ball that came his way. He was running for everything, and at times, this made him look a little awkward on the grass, but he clearly did not care.

The next time that I saw him play was on the 2004 US Open. This time, I was less impressed. His serve was conservative, and he played too far behind the baseline to put pressure on the hard-court specialists. I saw him barely beat a guy that was not even top 100 in the world, and I walked away with the impression that while he was definitely a monster on the clay, it was going to be very hard for him to excel on the faster surfaces.

After that, I saw him the next year at the Miami Open, and I started observing that he was trying to play closer to the baseline and hitting his forehand flatter when stepping inside the court. I also started noticing that he was entering into a good number of doubles events (not a normal routine for a top singles player), and he said in an interview that he was doing that to work on his transition game, and to have more fun. The rest is history!!!

His uncle Tony (his coach from the beginning) said once that watching Roger Federer play was like poetry/art (even if he was a very hard worker on his own way), and because of that, it was very difficult to base a coaching style or way of doing things around Federer’s game. He said that Rafa’s game on the other hand was ALL built-on work. Every skill, every pattern, every sprint, every character quality, EVERY single thing came from all the work that he put behind the scenes, and that because of this, one could use Rafa as a motivation and inspiration for the development of a child with the dreams to excel (not only in tennis). 

Today, I watched him leave every single possible effort on his “last” French Open match (with every top player in attendance at the stadium), and I am grateful for the many years in which he taught us without trying to. Taught us humility; taught us resiliency; taught us to believe in the ability to create progress even at the highest levels; and taught us that being a nice guy and an unbelievable competitor are two things that can be strived for at the same time every single day.

Muchas gracias Rafael!!