Rafael Nadal – the REAL reason for his quirky rituals

UPDATE: Rafael Nadal has been plagued with injuries, mixed successes and spectacular early round exits over the past year. The US Open has been no different, even as he started out well with a two-set lead against Italy’s Fabio Fognini. At Wimbledon, he was knocked out in the second round by Jamaican Dustin Brown, ranked just 102. Nadal’s long losing streak has generated the awful suggestion that it may be time for him to walk away from the game he loves. Perish the thought. Before such an extreme measure, he should perhaps consider a new coach, much as he remains  loyal to uncle Toni. A complete overhaul is looking necessary, and it could also include diet. One just has to look at how diet and other lifestyle changes affected current World Number 1 Novak Djokovic’s performance. At Flushing Meadows, Nadal continued to display the little rituals for which he has become famous, and that can seem at times to be  a deliberate ploy to infuriate and unbalance them. I say he can’t help himself: he has a personality mind set, a mental condition, that compels him to perform a ridiculously long list of rituals on court. However, he will always be tennis royalty, and there is still power, brilliance and beauty in his game. Till then, here’s what propels him to behave as he does. MS

By Marika Sboros

There is a distressing and creeping sameness to Rafael Nadal’s on-court performance these days.

Rafael Nadal
Picture: Reuters/Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sportscreeping sameness to Spanish player Rafael Nadal’s matches these days.

The former World Number 1 has once again gone down in a spectacular third round defeat at the US Open to Italy’s Fabio Fognini in yet another cliche  of a “shock upset”.

He did take it to five sets, but after being two sets up, it was a surprise exist.

And it’s true that these shock upsets are becoming all too common.  Nadal is being left looking almost as famous for his quirky littlet rituals on court as for the power tennis that last year won him his ninth French Open title in 10 years.

There have been suggestions that all that is left for Nadal now is to change his coach. He remains loyal to uncle Toni, which is all very well. But when something clearly isn’t working, it is clearly time for a change.

Read also: Nadal on his losing streak: Uncle Toni stays. It’s my fault, not his

I thought he was well on his way to lifting the Wimbeldon trophy for the third time. Alas, it was not to be, and his defeat by Kyrgios had nothing to do with his time-wasting rituals.

Nadal is often accused of deliberately wasting time to distract and infuriate opponents – and viewers, including me. I’ve said it before, as have others: his rituals have nothing to do with upsetting his opponents’ mental equilibrium, and everything to do with balancing his own.

It has been suggested before that Nadal suffers from OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder. I think it’s a distinct possibility, though I’m not sure “suffering” is quite the right word to use. His OCD looks to be far more of a blessing than a burden, despite the loss to Kyrgios. To my mind, if anything, his obsessive compulsions serve as the perfect foil to the magic and mystery of his tennis genius.

Psychiatrists define OCD as an anxiety disorder characterised by “obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour”. It sits on a spectrum from mild to severe; if severe and left untreated, it interferes with the sufferer’s ability to perform at work or at play.

Read also: Nadal: Is it time for him to say goodbye?

If Nadal does have OCD, it clearly isn’t interfering in anything, or his spectacular journey into the stratosphere of tennis. And all the top players have their own little quirks, superstitions, rituals, or whatever you like to call them. They also get accused of time-wasting, and in a worst-case scenario, lose points for it.

A report on the internet on the” top five tennis players with the most eccentric rituals or habits” puts Nadal at number one, and American Serena Williams a close second. She uses the same shower before her matches, wears the same socks for matches, and fixates on “bouncing the ball five times on her first serve and only twice on her second ball toss”.

In Rafa’s case, it’s the sheer scale of rituals that makes them “soar above superstition” as one writer put it, and into the realm of OCD. His rituals are so many, even devoted uncle and coach, Tony Nadal, has commented publicly, telling a Spanish website on one occasion: “He has told me before he can stop doing them, and I have told him to do it.”

Nadal usually does whatever Uncle Tony tells him to do on court, but not this time round, and not because he’s  a brat. He can’t stop the rituals, because his mind compels him to do them.

Estimates of the number of Rafa’s rituals range from a list of 12 “pre-serve compulsions” to 20 on-court rituals, with little overlap. One website calls Nadal “neurotic”, gives a checklist of rituals, and quotes him saying it gives “the order I seek in my head”. Here are some of Nadal “musts”:

  • Have a cold shower 45 minutes before a match;
  • Wear both socks at the same height;
  • Carry one racquet onto court, and five more racquets in his bag;
  • Place two water bottles, one cold, one warm, in a straight line on the ground, labels facing towards the end of the court from which he is about to play;
  • Sprint to the baseline after the coin spin, with a split step then a jog around the back court;
  • Never walk on the sidelines – as if avoiding cracks on a pavement; and
  • Bounce the ball 10 to 12 times before serving.

I have my own obsessive compulsive leanings, and find my eye drawn compulsively to all the little rituals Nadal performs on himself, in what one writer calls an “elaborate, nuanced 12-step programme”. It includes:

  • Towelling his face left side first, then right side, then each arm, after every single point;
  • Adjusting the left, then right, shoulder of his shirt, wiping his nose with thumb and forefinger, pushing his hair back over each ear – despite a forehead sweatband; and finally
  • Adjusting the front and back of his underwear with his right hand.

Psychiatrists get irritated with people like me for trivialising what can be a serious, disabling mental illness. Orthodox treatment protocols are serious enough, and include psychotropic drugs to reduce anxiety, and treat depression that often accompanies OCD. Psychologists also use CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to change negative thoughts, and help people with OCD think of ways to do things differently.

Nadal clearly doesn’t think there’s a need to change anything, and quite right too.

I could probably do with some CBT to change my attitude and see Nadal’s in a less judgmental light – like my husband’s more generous-spirited Zen view of Nadal’s quirks as simply “the way he centers himself”.

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