A letter to Rafael Nadal

The following opinion piece by Carlos Matallanas, A letter to Rafael Nadal, was published in Diario AS on 12 June 2019 following Nadal's 12th Roland Garrós triumph. It was selected as one of the three finalists in the International Sport Press Association AIP Sports Media Awards for the Best Column category. Carlos' piece was one of 17,000 entries and finished runner-up at this evening's gala in Budapest. Carlos, a former football player who has been diagonosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and was unable to attend tonight's event, was represented by his brother Javier.

A letter to Rafael Nadal

Hello, Rafael. I’m afraid I'm not going to be very original. It is impossible to be when such overwhelming consensus exists. Furthermore, it’s been some 10 years or so since I ran out of clever words when I was writing reports and analysis of your victories and setbacks for El Confidencial. I spent the following five years repeating myself excessively. I know that my fellow journalists suffer the same affliction. We have all been left literally speechless.

With that in mind, I’m not going to waste column inches in an attempt to describe what we are all aware of. I would however like to take advantage of this privileged window I have been afforded to explain how I see you from my point of view. I have suffered a terrible defeat, a brutal illness that cut short my life’s project when I found myself in its sweetest moment. According to all the statistics of average survival rates I shouldn’t even be here today. Since 2016, I have watched your games lying prostrate in bed, without the ability to move. I am a football man – it is one of the few things I feel qualified to talk about with conviction. But fortunately my footballer’s eyes also allow me to enjoy other sports and to feel affinity for their complexities and challenges.

Through my modest appreciation of elite-level tennis, I have witnessed your career with the pleasure and the passion that millions of people around the world share with me. I am not one to idolise anyone, not even those people who have provided me with unforgettable emotions and happiness, but my admiration for you is stratospheric. I have been asked on many occasions what I most admire about your career. It is not success; that is very clear in my mind because it is easy to admire someone when life is treating them well. Overcoming physical hardship has been the most impressive of your achievements without doubt, but I think that I value other virtues even more greatly. In the strictly sporting sphere, I find myself fascinated by the capacity for concentration and calmness at crucial moments and of course by the ability to prove more tenacious than every strategy deployed by your opponents, something which often drives them to complete despair.

I have watched you in defeat in the conviction that frustration over errors made weighs considerably less heavily when you have drained every last reserve to play to the limit of your endurance and experience. I always have the feeling that you have played in exactly that way. All of these capacities and many others, such as the improvements constantly incorporated into your game through daily training, are worthy of merit. But above all, it is your personality and your attitude that have genuinely drawn me to you. And those same attributes also explain all of the above.

Before I was diagnosed, I felt a familiarity with the way you carried yourself in the world, I suppose more because I wanted for myself that same arsenal of psychological resources than because I was really in possession of them. I remember experiencing that sensation when I saw you in the flesh for the first time, in a corridor at the Madrid Masters in 2010. I think that this identification based on desire is what we feel as your fans, and more concretely those of us who are your compatriots, those of us who share a similar socio-cultural space. And at the same time, beyond our borders, I believe that people from other countries associate all Spaniards with your character. Beyond clichés and without playing on cheap patriotism, because there are as many bad examples of humanity here as there are anywhere else, I do genuinely believe that you, Rafael Nadal, are a motor of our collective identity, whatever that may be.

When I found myself against life’s ropes in those moments when you cannot hide from yourself, I fought (and I continue to fight) with the only weapons that we have, those that were forged throughout our entire existence, from when we were children. Even if it would be incorrect to state that I am in possession of one of these thanks to you, I am convinced that your ever-present inspiration has shown me that the correct path is always to wield the weapons we possess with resolve, nobility and determination, in order to defeat all of our fears. Even the biggest one of all that we as human beings hold: the final, irreversible defeat.

I imagine that you might think I am exaggerating, that you are merely a tennis player. But that should not be underestimated. Sport is culture. And sport is education. And if Cervantes or Goya sketched us and act as reference points through their ingenious works of reflection, you perform the same role through your intuitive movement across a tennis court. I am in no doubt: when I weigh up how much I have lost through my illness and the little that it has left intact, the result will continue to ring positive because of simple yet huge pleasures like being able to continue watching you a racquet in your hand. Life is a little more worth it thanks to the existence of our Rafael Nadal.

Yours sincerely, Carlos Matallanas.

Carlos Matallanas is a journalist who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2014. He wrote this article with his eyes.