“Excuse me,” Rafael Nadal says to the driver of a Mercedes courtesy car in Monte Carlo, where he’s in town to play the annual clay-court tennis tournament in mid-April. “We are going to the casino?” Yes, the driver assures him. Nadal has just finished a two-hour practice session and changed from his aqua Advantage Rafa gear into a white-shirt-and-blue-blazer getup, tousled his hair twice in a mirror and marched toward the car for the short ride along the Mediterranean to the Casino de Monte Carlo. Where he is about to get his ass kicked.
In poker, that is. The world’s top-ranked tennis player was set to face off against Vanessa Selbst, a Yale Law graduate who has made over $9.5 million from poker, making her the highest-earning female player ever. Selbst wasted little time talking trash to the tennis star. “How many times have you lost in Monte Carlo?” she asked. Just twice, Nadal told her. “I’m hoping this is No. 3,” she said. Selbst controlled the charity game from the first hand. “He needs work,” she said afterward. “He’s not aggressive enough.”
Come again? Rafael Nadal, one of the most maniacally intense athletes on the planet, famous for pounding his body on every point, lacks aggression? Well, if anyone can learn how to ramp things up–in poker or go fish or any other game–it’s Nadal. From the moment he burst onto the global sporting scene, winning the 2005 French Open at age 19, pundits wondered how long the hard-driving Spaniard could last. His perpetual snarl–Nadal plays with a chip on his face–expressed a manic drive that was sure to wear him down over time, some analysts said. Rafa would just be a passionate flash.
“All my career, I’ve been listening to that song,” Nadal tells TIME while lounging in the corner of the casino after the poker game. “That I will not have a long career because my movements are too aggressive.”
But here we are, nearly a decade and 12 more Grand Slam victories later, and Nadal is still No. 1 in the world. No less an authority than Andre Agassi recently called him the greatest player of all time.
Which isn’t to say injuries have not taken a toll. Knee, foot, back and hamstring problems have hampered him over the years. After losing in the second round at Wimbledon in 2012, Nadal stayed off the court for seven months because of tendinitis in his left knee. He missed the London Olympics–Nadal had won gold in Beijing–and the U.S. Open. Even Nadal’s coach, his uncle Toni, thought he might never play again.
Nadal, however, finished 2013 with a 75-7 match record, reclaimed the world’s top ranking from Novak Djokovic and won two more Grand Slams–his eighth French Open and his second U.S. Open title. Retired American pro Justin Gimelstob summed up the run: “It’s one of the great comebacks not in tennis history but sports history.”
Suddenly, Nadal was just one away from Pete Sampras’ tally of 14 Grand Slam titles and within striking distance of Roger Federer’s record of 17. Federer turns 33 this summer, still capable of greatness but clearly fading. Nadal turns 28 in June. Advantage, Rafa.
A New Golden Age
Nadal’s pursuit of Federer has become one of the great story lines of international sports. Tennis’ dreamy Fab Four–Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Brit Andy Murray–have all developed tantalizing rivalries, which has been great for fans and better for the game’s bottom line. The men’s pro tour saw record attendance and television ratings last year; its 838 million viewers represented a 75% spike since 2008. Sponsorship revenue is up 200% since 2008, and prize money has grown by 72% over the past decade. Tennis is enjoying a new golden age.
Nadal is the most recognized Spanish athlete in the world, according to Personality Media, a Spanish market-research firm. That’s due partly to his penchant for grinding out dramatic, instant-classic victories instead of racking up stress-free and forgettable wins. “I never like the easy matches,” he says. “I think that good sportsmen don’t like the easy wins.” Nadal recalls his epic 5-hr. 53-min. loss to Djokovic in the final of the 2012 Australian Open with more fondness than a straight-sets annihilation of Federer at the 2008 French Open. “It stays in your mind a lot longer.”
Federer, Djokovic and Murray have won their share of tournaments, but the French Open, which begins May 25, is Nadal’s playground. He has owned the event, winning the championship eight of the past nine years. In Paris, Nadal’s sliding style on clay, where the high bounces are rarely out of his reach, have made him nearly unbeatable–and mesmerizing to watch. He whips his racket with a ridiculous amount of speed, unleashing a deadly lefty forehand that snaps like a lasso, grunting and sweating as he attacks each point. Watching Nadal at his grinding best leaves you exhausted. “I like this thing,” Nadal says of playing on dirt. “I understand the sport this way. It needs strategy, it needs suffering, it needs good possibilities to make the game interesting, no?”
This year’s tournament should be particularly interesting. Nadal won the Madrid Open on May 11, but he has struggled in this season’s other clay-court tune-ups. In Monte Carlo, Nadal lost in the quarterfinals, and he also stumbled in recent tournaments in Barcelona and Rome, all events where he used to be a lock. His knee, by his admission, is still bothering him. The last time Nadal lost three clay-court matches before the French Open was in 2003. He was 16.
The Game Within the Game
Pro athletes are notorious gamblers, prone to card games on late-night team planes for hundreds of dollars–or more–a hand and cash challenges on a round of golf. They need to win, and gambling helps sate their hypercompetitive jones. In 2012, Nadal was injured and isolated in his home in Majorca while his rivals piled up victories on tour. Needing a distraction–and a competitive fix–Nadal turned to poker.
He always had a fondness for the game. Pau Gasol, the Spanish NBA player and an old friend of Nadal’s, remembers playing hands with him and other Spanish Olympians in his room at the Olympic Village in Beijing. “He won some money,” says Gasol. Before Wimbledon in 2012, Nadal signed an endorsement deal with PokerStars.com, an online card room, and the company sent a coach to his home during his rehab. “He wanted to improve,” says Alfonso Cardalda, Nadal’s poker coach. “He tried to be a winner. Like he does in tennis.”
For Nadal, the card games were therapeutic. The slow tedium of rehab often left him frustrated. “They are tough moments, because when you are working every day, I didn’t really see a result,” he says. “That”–he pauses, uncomfortable with the memory–“is hard. Does it make sense to keep working when you are not seeing one positive result during the work?” He needed the battle, if not on the court, then at least at the table. “Poker gave me that competition I really need,” he says. “It really helped me a lot when I was injured.”
After he rejoined the tour in 2013, Nadal kept at it. Cardalda spent two weeks with his famous pupil at an early-season tournament in Acapulco and went twice to Majorca in the summer, where Nadal grew up and still lives with his parents (though he recently bought his own property nearby). They even devoted a day to Nadal’s poker game during last year’s French Open.
The practice has paid off. In December, Nadal won a celebrity tournament in Prague against a field that included Daniel Negreanu, whom one poker-ranking service just named player of the decade. Nadal rarely raised bets early. “He came in very conservative, which was his game plan, until a few people were out,” says Negreanu. “Then it was time to pounce. He started to get really aggressive, which worked out for him. He got a little lucky against me, but that’s part of the game. That’s what makes it fun.”
Tennis and poker, it turns out, are complementary, each reinforcing mental habits needed to succeed in the other. “One big thing is concentration,” says Rebecca Symes, a U.K.-based sports psychologist. “Tennis is an individual sport, which means you’re trying to be in control all the time, which is actually quite similar in poker.” Then there’s the matter of coping with dumb luck. In tennis it may be an umpire’s bad call, a freak gust of wind; in poker you can calculate all the probabilities and make the right decision, but the cards often move against you. “One of the biggest things in poker is not letting swings get to you,” says James Blake, a retired American tennis pro and poker enthusiast who believes the card game helped him remain steady and focused on the court. Uncle Toni doesn’t disagree. “In poker, always there is tension,” he says. “It’s the same in sport.”
These days, away from the court, Nadal could not seem less like the frenetic blur pinballing across the baseline. The snarl is gone, and the vibe is decidedly low-key. A big night for him in posh Monte Carlo: staying in his hotel room with his father and some friends, watching his favorite football team, Real Madrid, beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey.
With the French Open looming, however, Nadal’s focus is on his court game. The knee remains a problem. “I’m still having pain a lot of days,” Nadal says in his sometimes fractured English. “The only thing I wish is that the pain is only minding me when I’m competing. Because I really like to enjoy the rest of the time of my life.” If there are people who question Nadal’s chances of catching Federer’s Grand Slam record, count Nadal among them. “I doubt about myself,” Nadal says. “I think the doubts are good in life. The people who don’t have doubts I think only two things–arrogance or not intelligence.”
“He Has the Power”
On a perfect Monday morning, hundreds of fans are perched above the walls of the Monte Carlo Country Club, trying to glimpse Nadal practicing on one of the side courts. Camilla Gallo, a personal trainer from Italy, squats under a green tarp covering the court’s fence. Maybe she’ll see Nadal’s feet. “The power,” says Gallo, when asked why she’s obsessing over a practice session. “More than the other athletes, he has the power.”
For Niko Nonaka, “it’s his passion for tennis” that brought her from Tokyo to cheer on Nadal in a Vamos Rafa hat. “He’s consistent and seems humble. And of course, he’s very handsome. The body, the face, everything.” Why Rafa over Roger? “Federer is too perfect,” Nonaka says. “Rafa–he’s just more human.”
The Roger-Rafa rivalry has been a gripping story of contrasting styles–grace vs. grit–over the past decade. But it’s unlikely to remain tennis’ top drama. Expect Nadal and Djokovic, currently second in the rankings, to be the main draw for the next few seasons, with Murray getting his shots along the way. All the better for Nadal to downplay his pursuit of Federer’s record.
Still, he feels its weight. Federer could yet add to his total, and Djokovic, who has won four straight matches against Nadal, looms as a freakishly limber roadblock to history.
“Sure, I have pressure,” Nadal says with a laugh. “My goal is to keep being a better player year by year. We’ll see where I finish my career. Do I have 13? Or more? That’s the sport. I feel happy about the things that have happened to me. And I’m going to keep fighting to try to have more.”
Rafael Nadal won’t be folding.
This appears in the June 02, 2014 issue of TIME.