- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Rafael Nadal brushed the wet, long, dark hair out of his face and sighed.
He had been answering questions for about five minutes in the wake of his surprising three-set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro on April 2 in Miami. Nadal, who previously had never dropped a set to Del Potro, called the loss an "amazing disaster" and insisted the young Argentine hadn't played one of his better matches. Nadal admitted he was lacking his usual focus and allowed that he had played "really bad."
And then, at the end of a curiously laconic postmatch performance, Nadal was asked whether he was mystified about how he had played at the Sony Ericsson Open.
"[There's] always a reason because you are not playing at your level during the tournament," he said softly but with force. "No, I am calm. I am happy about myself, about everything this year, yeah. I don't know.
"Always is a reason, but it's personal."
Today, we might have a better idea of what that personal reason was.
The Barcelona, Spain, newspaper La Vanguardia reported Monday that Nadal's parents, Ana Maria and Sebastian, have separated. This was duly noted in the Tuesday New York Times (in a single paragraph) and followed weeks of heated speculation in Internet posts and on message boards.
La Vanguardia connected the separation with Nadal's ouster at the French Open -- his loss to Robin Soderling in the fourth round was his first at Roland Garros and ended his quest for five straight titles -- which had been previously ascribed largely to tendinitis in both his knees.
Later Tuesday, Nadal's media manager, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, returned an e-mail with this spare answer:
"We do not comment on personal issues for Rafa. We never did, and we are not going to at this moment."
"There are no excuses whatsoever for his defeat at Roland Garros," Perez-Barbadillo noted later. "He said that clearly."
But no one ever asked him a direct question about his parents.
Nadal's movement at the French Open did seem compromised, and in two nondescript exhibitions last week in London, against Lleyton Hewitt and Stanislas Wawrinka, he seemed generally listless. Three days before the first ball was hit at the All England Club, Nadal announced he would not be defending his hard-won Wimbledon title.
His coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, saw it coming. "If it's me," he said after Rafa's straight-sets loss to Hewitt on Thursday, "I'm [flying] to Mallorca."
The Spanish island always has been Rafael Nadal's safe port.
For even as he rose with astonishing quickness toward the top of professional tennis, Nadal lived with his parents and younger sister Maria Isabel in a five-story apartment building in the city of his birth, Manacor, Mallorca. Family, he always maintained, meant everything to him. His actions proved it; he lived at home at an age when many tennis stars have long moved out, and his uncle remains his coach. Even his girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perello, is a former classmate from Manacor.
In early May, not long after Miami, Marta Cibelina, a Spanish "heart" columnist, blogged about rumors that Nadal's parents weren't living in the same house. Nadal turned 23 earlier this month. Is it so strange that a family-centric kid who is roughly the age of a college senior would feel that separation so profoundly?
Less than two weeks ago, Peter Bodo wrote in his blog at Tennis.com:
"The rumors that Nadal's parents are about to divorce keep popping up in the gutter press and in my inbox via emails from acquaintances and sources, and I bring it up for this reason only: there's a parallel to be drawn between how domestic turmoil might affect an obedient son who's never questioned the impermeability of the familial cocoon, and how losing dominion over a patch of earth where he has known only spectacular success might affect a young and still not fully formed tennis player."
Fans of Roger Federer might see stories of this separation as some kind of slight to his crowning achievement two weeks ago in Paris. They are not. That Federer never had the opportunity to avenge four consecutive losses to Nadal at Roland Garros, the last three in the championship match, cannot be held against him.
Still, it remains a good possibility -- especially in an athlete whose heart is his greatest weapon -- that the split played some role in Nadal's loss to Soderling. Perhaps, Rafa loyalists would argue, it was an even larger factor.
In retrospect, it's remarkable how well Nadal played to this point in the season. He won the Australian Open and, later, Indian Wells, avenging a loss to Andy Murray in Rotterdam. And then he won three straight titles on clay, in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. But then he was extended to more than four hours in a grueling semifinal victory over Novak Djokovic in Madrid and lost meekly to Federer in straight sets.
In the ATP World Tour media guide, Nadal's father, Sebastian, is noted as a business partner with two brothers in a restaurant, Sa Punta, and the owner of a glass and window company, Vidres Mallorca. He reportedly owns an insurance company as well. Rafa's mother, Ana Maria, is listed as a housewife.
Sebastian and Ana Maria were on hand together at Wimbledon last year, along with their only son. It was, apparently, the last tournament they all attended together.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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