There is his uncle Miguel Angel, known as the Beast of Barcelona when he was a defender for three World Cup soccer teams for Spain. Miguel Angel is as close to an idol as Rafael ever had and the person from whom he inherited his athletic ability and a template for handling fame with grace. And there is his Uncle Toni, his coach, a rigorous and charming moralist and former professional tennis player who taught Nadal the game and how to survive it.
It was Toni who gave him his first racket, when he was three, who was the first to recognize his nephew's champion-worthy intensity and who, upon seeing the right-handed Nadal hit two-handed ground strokes, made him more dangerous by converting him into a left-handed player. It was Toni who taught Nadal to handle adverse conditions by practicing on bum courts with bum balls, who insisted that he never throw a racket and that he unlace his tennis shoes and not yank them off, even after he was getting his gear free from sponsors. "I know it doesn't cost nothing for you," Toni told him, "but it is different for other people."
When Nadal was 14 the Spanish tennis federation invited him to train in Barcelona, the center of tennis in Spain. His parents didn't want him to go. "They were worried about my education suffering too much," Nadal says. "My uncles both agreed, so I stayed at home."
Remaining with his family would ground him, both in tennis and in life. In 2001, at the age of 15, he joined the men's tour, bringing to it the outrageous topspin generated by his prodigious strength and monstrous, arcing strokes. (Balls coming off Federer's racket rotate 2,500 times per minute; Agassi's whirled at 1,800 rpm. Rafa's 3,200-rpm shots drop precipitously, then bounce head-high before you can blink.) Two years later he made it into the top 50. If he missed out on other things, he didn't notice. He was obsessed with the game. The only thing that mattered more to him, he would say, was the health and happiness of his family.
All along, his Uncle Toni set the tone for his progress. He insisted that his nephew learn his own lessons, as when he decided not to dissuade the 17-year-old Nadal from downing three chocolate croissants before a match. "When he is playing bad because of this," Toni explains, "then he knows for next time."
The morning after Nadal won his first grand slam, at 19, at the 2005 French Open, Costa, himself a former top 10 player, encountered Toni reading a handwritten list in the hotel dining room.
"What is that?" asked Costa.
"I was thinking," said Toni, "about all the things he did bad."
"Maybe you don't tell him this today," said Costa.
"No," said Toni. "Has to be now."