The soldier, the diplomat and the maverick. Although from the outside it may unnecessarily complex, the communication of Rafael Nadal and his team actually employs very strict rules…
Clan: "Group of people who have a degree of relationship either on the father's side, or on the mother's side. Also refers to a group of people supporting each other, more for passion or interest."
As defined by the dictionary, the Nadals are a clan in both senses of the word. In the entourage of the record holder for victories at Roland Garros, each member takes care to stay in the position they've been assigned in the box reserved for the friends and family at the tournaments: the men in the front row, the women in the second. The same applies to the communication conducted by the clan: there is a hierarchy among the people allowed to speak, and each has a well-defined role, even if the central character, who wins on the courts, proves to be not very talkative, excluding the obligatory utterances in the press conferences.
This way of proceeding is the middle way between the way the two major rivals of the Mallorcan manages their affairs. Far from the carefully orchestrated mess of the Djokovic tribe, where everyone - players, coaches, family and even sparring partners - may speak, provided they remain within previously defined limits, and far from the relative opacity of the Federer staff, where each employee is subject to a contractual duty of confidentiality towards the media, and where the only person allowed to speak regularly is the boss himself.
The communication of the Nadals is organized in two ways: the first one - the official way - for Rafael in interview rooms or, more likely, for Benito Perez Barbadillo, the man of measured, florid and relentlessly positive press releases. And next to it, there's the informal communication of Uncle Toni, stamped with a seal of controversy. Beneath his “grumpy bear” exterior, Rafa’s coach is a scholar – having studied history at university - and passionate about the world of information. Very quickly, Toni understood how to "feed" the press and more importantly, when: in the manner of a football coach who rages (against the referee in most cases) to help protect his players, Toni fires off a volley when his nephew is in the eye of the storm.
“Worse than the French spectator: the Parisian spectator”
A typical example came in 2009: "Rafa" - exhausted by a poorly managed schedule and his refusal to stop to treat a knee in shreds - crumbles under the onslaught of Robin Soderling at Roland Garros. Toni Nadal gives his reaction to act as a lightning-rod: "The Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. There is only one type of supporter worse than a French supporter; the Parisian supporter, who demonstrates the idiocy of a kind of people who feel superior. I think the French can't stand a Spaniard winning." Jackpot! Keyboards, microphones and the cameras went crazy and talked about the encouragement that accompanied Söderling as he beat the quadruple titleholder. And the Nadals returned to their island of Majorca, were they had the opportunity to quietly address the mistakes and to come back even stronger.
It is obviously difficult to navigate between two such different kinds of expression, so opposite in tone and substance. The latest "hot" topic; the strange suggestion of Guy Forget - refused since by the tournament direction - to revise upwards the seeding of Rafael Nadal (probably 5th or 4th) at Roland Garros, in order to avoid possible early confrontations between heavyweights. The official reaction from the Nadal team via Perez Barbadillo: "It's the tournament organizers’ role to decide what they want, then we can agree or not. This is something that Wimbledon already did, but that Roland Garros or the other Grand Slams have never done. I used to work at the ATP and if I was still working there, I wouldn't agree with this idea. We fought hard against such arrangements. But now I work for Rafael Nadal, so I work for the interest of my player. But for now, I don't know what would be his interest there." Either an attempt to play modest, to show that they understand the position of all the concerned parties, without forgetting to send the ball into the opposite camp, stressing that the issue is beyond the strict context of Rafael Nadal's interests, and that the greatest winners of the operation might be more on the side of the Parisian organizers. Or to divert attention, gently…
Now Toni Nadal's version: "If they decide to move the seeds, it would be good for Rafa. He won Roland Garros seven times and lost his ranking because of the seven months he spent away from the courts. This doesn't happen if the rankings were taking the results of two years into account. It’s not normal that Juan Martin del Potro who was injured for one year had to fall to the 700th place before having to make up for the time lost. This is neither good for tennis nor for the spectacle." And, hey presto, the uncle goes on the attack, shooting at everything that moves and even taking the opportunity to address a perennial hobbyhorse, the ATP ranking over two years.
Sport and business, the two breasts of a thriving business
You said "contradictory?" Completely. But the vagueness is intentional and maintained, because it's not aimed at the same recipient(s). According to the official communication, everything is great in the best of worlds, to reassure the fans... and especially the sponsors, because we are talking about a player belonging to the elite who win far more money in various advertising contracts than in prize money.
With Toni the maverick, on the contrary, it's always almost on the verge of a catastrophe: if the followers had listened to him, his nephew's career would have ended in November 2005 and Rafael’s first foot injury. And again in 2009. And again in 2012. Always build every game, every tournament, and every return as an outsized feat, to relieve a maximum of pressure off his nephew who, despite winning 11 Grand Slams, displays an outstanding (fake?) humility, very different of the usual ego of any champion of this ilk. We remember Pete Sampras at the beginning of 2002 U.S. Open: "Even after falling in the rankings, I will always feel favourite at the U.S. Open. It is my home." The same certainty that Jimmy Connors had ten years before him, or Federer today when he sets foot at Wimbledon.
Rafael Nadal, for his part, finished up by taking the point-of-view of his uncle, taking each game as a potential trap and not feeling favourite anywhere. Occasionally close to ridicule, refuting this label while playing against Jarkko Nieminen or Gianni Mina at Roland Garros, players he described either "very talented and very experienced" or "very talented and very promising.” No, realmente?
By Guillaume Willecoq