Rafael Nadal's association with football stretches back even further than his affiliation with tennis but, despite his family connection to Barcelona, the 11-time Grand Slam winner is not an aficionado of the Catalan giants, but a supporter of their greatest rivals - Real Madrid.

The 26-year-old's uncle, Miguel Ángel Nadal, won La Liga five times and claimed an historic European Cup triumph at Wembley during eight years as a Barcelona player, but his success at the Camp Nou appeared to have little influence when nephew Rafa chose a club to follow.

Former world No.1 Nadal was once called 'as Merengue as Raúl, Iker Casillas and Alfredo Di Stéfano' and could be seen leaping from his seat in delight during Madrid's recent Copa del Rey semi-final triumph in El Clasico.

Any disagreements at the Nadal dinner table between Miguel Ángel and Rafa, however, can be placated by the brother of the former, with Toni Nadal having been a more inspirational figure than any other in the life of the tennis star.

Toni has coached Rafa ever since he was able to hit a ball in anger and, when Trans World Sport caught up with him in 2003, he believed similarities between Miguel Ángel and the tennis prodigy marked the 16-year-old as a future star in his sport.


"Both of them are very disciplined in sport and in life in general - I think that's one standout quality they share," Toni explained.

"They're both willing to make sacrifices for their sport, but I think Rafael is more straightforward than his uncle. I'd say Rafael is mentally more aggressive than Miguel Ángel."

A similarity in discipline may not have been the only thing shared between Miguel Ángel and Rafa, had the Majorcan pursued the path of a professional footballer rather than tennis player when the opportunity presented itself.

Speaking to Trans World Sport as he took his first steps in a soon to be fruitful career in tennis, Nadal revealed that, despite his prodigious talents with a racquet in hand, he harboured a more intense passion for playing and watching football.


"I love football. I played it seriously until I was 11 or 12 and liked it just as much as tennis, maybe more," said a 16-year-old Nadal. "I still love watching it on TV - more than I do watching tennis."

Despite being unable to reach the pinnacle of his favoured sport as a player, Nadal has managed to have an involvement in the game behind the scenes, having acquired a 10 percent stake in hometown club RDC Mallorca, while he even rejected the opportunity to become their vice-president.

Famed for his aggression on the court, Nadal has shown he can be pugnacious in his role with Mallorca, having openly criticised UEFA for their decision to eject the club from the Europa League for excessive debts, slamming the European governing body for apparent hypocrisy.

Nadal does, however, have a far softer side when removed from the cauldron of competition, and his affable relationship with a number of Spain's international footballers afforded him the privilege of being invited into the victorious La Roja dressing room following the 2010 World Cup final.


Spain were able to cruise to glory in South Africa burdened by expectation following two years of domination, and their ability to deliver what was anticipated was testament to their collective talent and mental fortitude.

Like his footballing compatriots, Nadal has long dealt with the pressure of expected success and, even in his teens on the clay courts of Majorca, was required to combat comparisons with sometimes training partner, and former world No.1, Carlos Moya.

Moya, however, did little to relieve the stress placed upon the shoulders of the teenaged Nadal, and was able to envisage his fellow islander becoming almost invincible in their sport.

"I think he's already a very complete player and he's improving all the time" Moya said, as Trans World Sport reflected on the career of Nadal a decade on from their first meeting.

"He is good enough right now but he has a fantastic future ahead of him. He's aggressive, he has a solid game and he's very ambitious. And, what with the desire he has - he's already a tough player to face - one day he can be almost unbeatable."

Nadal has far exceeded the career achievements of Moya, a French Open winner in 1997, with the former joint-fourth on the list of all time Grand Slam winners. Nadal was also astute enough in his early days to see any comparisons between the pair as nothing more then futile.


"I don't think you can make any comparisons between us. He's been No.1 in the world, whereas I'm still pretty young - I'm only 16 and I've still got everything to do," Nadal said.

"I may be playing well at the moment and things may be looking good for me but, the truth is, there are plenty of people out there who started their careers well only to fall away later."

Nadal has been in danger of fulfilling that prophecy, as injuries threatened to curtail a career destined to be remembered as, perhaps, the most prolific in the history of the sport. He was forced to miss seven months of action last year owing to a serious knee injury, but has since returned with recent victories in the Brazil and Mexico Opens.

Like his team Real Madrid, Nadal has managed to record impressive recent results after months of pain, with consecutive Clasico wins and a defeat of Manchester United establishing Los Blancos as a force again, having fallen well behind Barcelona in La Liga.

The association of the two could continue as the months progress, with the last week in May presenting the chance for potentially iconic achievements for both Nadal and Real Madrid.

Having dispatched of Manchester United, Madrid will be among the favourites to reach the final of the Champions League at Wembley on May 25, and become the first club to win the prestigious competition for a 10th time.

A day later, meanwhile, Nadal returns to Roland Garros, his second home, looking to make up for lost time having missed the last two Slams, with the Spaniard intent on creating yet more history, by winning the French Open for an eighth time.

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