Son and Star

July 2009

Exactly five years ago I wrote a reflection about Rafael Nadal, a remarkable young man who at the moment of his extraordinary triumph reflected the time honored values of traditional Spain. He was barely 19 years old when he won the French Open tennis tournament. After the teenager scored the winning serve the first thing he did was rush over to embrace his family -- and then in his youthful exuberance he hugged Juan Carlos I, King of Spain!

Later on during the post tournament celebration, as he was speaking softly to his parents and other members of his family, he looked up at the press and said: 'I hope all this won't change me. I would like to stay the same as I have always been, and I believe I will pull it off. I want to continue being a 19-year old youngster and play my tennis.'

Five years later, I think he has “pulled it off.” And in the scheme of things, this accomplishment of Rafa is even more remarkable than all the subsequent tournament victories, which have rocketed him to stardom: the # 1 tennis player in the world. After all the glory days are over – fame is so transient – Rafa has a good chance to live a normal life on his own terms within his family and his neighborhood.

In the traditional Spanish family, children maintain an intimate connection with their families well into their adult lives. It is not uncommon for sons and daughters to remain at home until they are married in their late twenties. In the United States we have the understanding that if our children hang around home much beyond eighteen, it is time to nudge them out the door. We want them to become independent and self-sufficient. 

Today some Spaniards discard the traditional way of life as old fashioned and stifling. Is it not a good thing where love between parents and their children is allowed to mature within the extended family? Apparently that is what the young tennis player believes. Rafa and his family have made a conscious decision to immunize him from the seduction of fame; to the extent this is possible in our media saturated world. 

Whenever you see Rafa in public he is well-mannered and considerate, a clear indication that he was raised by a family with its priorities in order. Drawing on the experience of his uncle Miguel Angel, a defender for three World Cup soccer teams for Spain, he has learned how to handle fame with grace. The structure of the Nadal family is traditional, in which the father is the head, and support among the family members is unquestioned. From the day he was born, Rafa has drawn strength from the men who have surrounded him. 

His father’s love has been unwavering. For example, when Rafa suffered a stress fracture to his left ankle just as his career was ascending to new heights, his natural reaction was to return home. There, for the next three months, his father devoted all his energy to his son’s physical (and spiritual) recovery. Fully mended, Rafa returned to compete in the 2006 French Open where he won the title from Roger Federer, the best tennis player in the world. Ecstatic and exhausted after the victory, he fell into his father’s arms, saying, “Thank you, Popi.”

His father’s brother Antonio is the only coach Rafa has ever known. Uncle Toni has taught Rafa not only the fundamentals of tennis, but more importantly he has taught his nephew the fundamental values of life. Toni told one writer, “It’s really easy for these guys to start thinking the world revolves around them. I never could have tolerated it if Rafael had become a good player and a bad example of a human being.” 

The Nadal family still lives in Manacor, as they have since the 14th Century. It is situated on Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands east of the Spanish mainland in the Mediterranean Sea.

Situated a few miles in from the beach, the Nadals own a four-story apartment complex which is the locus of the family. Rafa has his own apartment there on the same floor as his younger sister’s. In neighboring apartments are his mother and father, and his grandparents. Uncle Toni, his wife, and three daughters live there too.

You might think that with the many Nadal men who have great athletic ability, that this would be a family of “jocks.” But the family is more balanced than that. One of Rafa’s grandfathers is a retired orchestra conductor. Rafa’s father Sebastian is involved with real estate and a small business in town. Rafa relaxes by fishing with high school friends, and has continued to date the same hometown girl since he was 19.

Early in his career Rafa described himself as a “simple boy." He tells reporters that after his glory days are over he will still live in Mallorca. Of course he will have some role in sports, but he also will be active in a charitable foundation he and his mother have founded to help children in the Third World. In the meantime he lives happily in the present, aware that his career might last several years at the top of the game, or maybe not. When he retires he says he will buy a normal sized boat to go fishing from his island home. 

I find it reassuring to know that in the fragmented society in which we all live today, there are the Nadals and hundreds of other Spanish families who live the alternative way of tradition. My father and his seven brothers and sisters lived in a similar way in Brookline, Massachusetts in the early 20th Century. 

The present emphasis on autonomy, personal freedom and privacy (protected by irritating passwords!!) deprives many of us of a life of mutual support. I rarely see my cousins. Because of our travels my children have only a tenuous connection with theirs. I am not sure this is a good thing. 

The major reason we enjoy our travels in Spain on behalf of La Tienda is the opportunity to visit the families among the small artisan producers who have become our friends. It brings meaning to our trips. May all of you have the opportunity this summer to enjoy your friends and be with your extended family.

Tu amigo,