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By Scoop Malinowski | Saturday, July 1, 2017

Rafael Nadal

"There's so much authority, it's like, the ball—you have that feeling it's knocking you off balance," Daniel Nestor said of facing Rafael Nadal's forehand.

Photo credit: Roland Garros/FFT

Rafael Nadal returns to Wimbledon for the first time in two years.

Beating the 10-time Roland Garros champion on his beloved red clay is one of the toughest tasks in tennis history.

Watch: 10 Thoughts On Wimbledon Men's Draw

But what does it feel like to face Nadal on any court?

Author and long-time tennis journalist Scoop Malinowski, a Tennis Now contributor, set out to find out.

Malinowski interviewed more than 50 ATP players for his fourth book, Facing Nadal: Symposium of a Champion.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Pat Cash, Donald Young, Daniel Nestor, Justin Gimelstob, James Blake and Marat Safin are among the players, who recount their personal experiences of Nadal and recall their first impressions meeting Rafa.

Facing Nadal: Symposium of a Champion is now available on The 220-page book retails for $9.99.

An excerpt from Facing Nadal is here.

Donald Young: "It's tough to play Nadal. He doesn't give away any points. He competes hard and he hits the ball heavy. Just gets to everything. Just a really tough out."

Question: Toughest to play?

Donald Young: "Hmmm...for me Andy Murray is tough to play. He just does everything so well. And such a strong base. He's a tough player."

Question: You played Nadal once. What is he like before the match in the locker room?

Donald Young: "He's a nice guy. Great guy off the court. Before the match he's pretty serious. On the court he's really intense. But off the court and before the match he's a great guy."

Question: Did anything surprise you about playing Nadal?

Donald Young: "No. It was everything I expected and saw on TV. Besides actually feeling the ball yourself is something you can't see on the TV, you could only feel."

Question: Who has the best forehand you faced?

Donald Young: "There's a ton. I practiced with (Fernando) Gonzalez. Rafa. I played Fed(erer). Fed's was pretty good. I couldn't read it at all. I played Jack Sock, he has a good one. A lot of good ones. Most everybody has a good one."

Question: Lasting memory or anecdote of playing Nadal, being on the ATP World Tour with him?

Donald Young: "Just professional. Really professional. Hard-working professional."

Nadal leads Young 2-0

2008 Indian Wells: Nadal 6-1, 6-3

2015 Indian Wells: Nadal 6-4, 6-2

Matthew Ebden: "I played him on the grass courts right after he had won the French Open, so he'd come straight from Roland Garros. And to play him at Queens Club, first match on the grass while I'd had a few matches—I'd qualified and I'd won a round—and then I had to play him and it was his first match on grass.

"So it was a real good chance for me if there was ever gonna be the best chance to get him but I still lost 6-4, 6-4 and it was one break each set. But he's Rafa, even after winning the French, being tired, coming on the grass, he still was able to beat me. So it wasn't too good for me. But yeah, he's a typical, you come out there, you see his ball fizzing around. And even though it's grass he still hits the ball unbelievable and super heavy."

Question: Did anything surprise you about being on court with him his first match on grass?

Matthew Ebden: "I'd hit with him a couple of times before. I remember just in the warmups, the first couple minutes, hitting up and down, his ball is very different to everyone else. It fizzes a lot higher and the shape and everything is a lot more through the air. But after a minute or two you adjust to it and it's fine. But just that initial sort of fizz through the air of his ball is different. You don't see that."

Question: Lasting memory of Rafa?

Matthew Ebden: "I guess it's his tenacity. Just the way he is humbly, extremely, completely...he's extremely focused and competitive but on himself more so, in a humble sort of way."

Nadal leads Ebden 1-0

2011 Queen’s Club: Nadal 6-4, 6-4

Michael Russell: "I played him once. I practiced with him a few times. Tough competitor. He's not gonna give you an inch. He runs for every ball. Enormous racquet head speed, more than anybody in the history of the game. And he really uses that to his advantage. He's able to create spins and angles that you just don't see."

Question: Before the match, what is he like? I was told by one player he does wind sprints in the locker room.

Michael Russell: "He'll warm up. The funny thing is he actually takes forever to warm up. If you're supposed to play at two o'clock, you might as well wait to 2:15 because he takes forever to warm up. He doesn't tape his ankles or his fingers until they actually call the match. So you really gotta be prepared to wait a little bit. And, you know, he does all his little jumps at the net. He's got a lot of energy. But obviously that's why he's one of the greatest players of all time."

Question: Did anything surprise you about being on the court with him?

Michael Russell: "Well, I see him at every tournament so I know a lot more about him than other people. A lot of people don't realize he's actually pretty big, he's almost 6-foot-2. But he moves like a guy that's smaller. A lot of people don't realize he's still tall and he has a lot of leverage. And that's one of the things that surprises people the most."

Question: Describe what it's like to practice with him?

Michael Russell: "Just incredible intensity. We practiced a few times in Australia, once even before he had a match. And we hit a good forty-five minutes. Really good pace and energy. And he went out and played four sets, three and a half hours. So he's very fit, as we all know. And he takes that through his practice sessions into his matches. I'm the same way. The guys at the top of the sport—they do the same. You have to really go into every practice and treat it like a match. He's got such good focus."

Question: How is he to interact with? Do you have a good rapport with Rafa? Or is he all business?

Michael Russell: "No. He's very friendly. Especially him with the other Spanish guys. They have great camaraderie, they're laughing, they play games together, whether it's video games or card games. They really have a good clique. All of them. It's a close group of guys. So he's very friendly, down to earth."

Question: Lasting memory or anecdote of Nadal?

Michael Russell: "The first time I saw Nadal I was in Mallorca, where he's from, playing the ATP event. They had an ATP event in Mallorca in 2002. He was a kid. He was a wildcard. And a friend of mine, Ramon Delgado, played him first round. I remember he was 16 (actually 15 and 10 months).

"So I was like, 'He's only 16. You have a pretty good draw.' And Ramon was like, 'I heard he's pretty good this player.' And we were watching him play. And he actually beat Ramon. And it was Rafael Nadal, lefty. And he wasn't nearly as tall. He had that really whippy forehand. And the rest is history. He ended up losing a pretty good match to Gaston Gaudio. And Gaston went on to win the tournament. It was just funny to see it. The kid was just 16 years old and went on to have an incredible career. And to be that good at 16, to win an ATP level match."

Question: We may never see that again.

Michael Russell: "Very rare. I'd be very surprised."

Nadal leads series 1-0

2011 Wimbledon: Nadal 6-4, 6-2, 6-2

Justin Gimelstob: "It's his energy, the spin, the sense of belief, his physicality, the way he tracks down balls. At the time we played, he stood much farther back behind the baseline. His serve wasn't very good. He didn't like being attacked. Like most of the great players I played in my career, I found a way to lose, he found a way to win. Since then he's gotten so much better."

Nadal leads series 1-0

2005 Beijing: Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-4

Daniel Nestor: "He's like a left-handed Jack Sock with the forehand (interview was done in Newport just days after Sock and Vasek Pospisil won the 2015 Wimbledon doubles title). Yeah, I mean the ball comes off Rafa's racquet huge. Both sides. He has good instincts for doubles too, which you wouldn't think because he doesn't play a lot. He's an amazing player. There's so much authority, it's like, the ball—you have that feeling it's knocking you off balance."

Question: Lasting memory or anecdote of Rafa on or off court?

Daniel Nestor: "Just a classy guy. Off the court he's a down to earth guy. A lot of the top guys have their entourages doing everything for them, but you get the feeling he's worked hard his whole life to get to the top and he hasn't forgotten where he's come from. That kind of feeling, he does things for himself, he doesn't need people doing things for him. Just a genuine guy. He always has time for people. And friendly. You wouldn't expect someone ranked number one in the world and dominated for so long to behave that way but he does. Which is nice."

Nadal leads doubles series 4-2

2010 Indian Wells Final: Nadal/Marc Lopez d. Nestor/Nenad Zimonjic, 7-6, 6-3

2009 Doha Final: Nadal/M. Lopez d. Nestor/Zimonjic, 4-6, 6-4, 10-8

2008 Queen’s Club: Nadal/Robredo d. Nestor/Zimonjic, 5-7, 6-3, 10-3

2007 Barcelona: Nadal/B. Salva-Vidal d. Nestor/Zimonjic, 7-6, 6-3

2006 Madrid: Nestor/Knowles d. Nadal/F. Lopez, 4-6, 7-5, 11-9

2005 Miami: Nestor/Knowles d. Nadal/F. Lopez, 7-6, 7-6

Dominic Thiem on facing Nadal at Roland Garros: "I faced him in Paris where obviously he lost one match in his career. It was's one of the biggest challenges in, not only tennis, but in all face Rafa in Paris. But it was a good experience for me and I think it helped me a lot."

Question: Did anything surprise you about being on the court with him live, instead of seeing him on TV or from the side?

Dominic Thiem: "It was completely new. It was my first year last year on the Tour and I knew everything, everybody only from the TV. And then all of a sudden I was matched in Paris against the nine-time champion. So it was a very good experience and also helpful."

Question: What did you learn that day?

Dominic Thiem: "That I still (have) a long way to go [smiles]."

Facing Nadal: Symposium of a Champion is now available on The 220-page book retails for $9.99.


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