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Posted: Wednesday February 11, 2009 3:06PM; Updated: Wednesday February 11, 2009 3:06PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >
TENNIS MAILBAG

Nadal's gracefulness, Henin's viewpoint and Roger's toxins

Story Highlights

Rafael Nadal was "raised right" by parents who aren't stage parents

Justine Henin must look at the current WTA landscape and think she can win

I think Brad Gilbert is a toxic personality match with Roger Federer

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nadal.jpg
Rafael Nadal has perfected the differentiation between power on the court and grace off it.
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Jon Wertheim's Mailbag
Jon Wertheim will answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag every Wednesday.
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Does Nadal have the best PR person, or does this all come naturally to him? The guy seems to handle himself in a way that I don't think we've seen from some of these younger players. The respect he continues to show to Federer seems genuine. How does he do it?
-- Erin, Sudbury, Mass.

• A good first question on the day Jelena Jankovic (?) bashes Roger Federer but claims to admire Nadal for his modesty. For the record, Nadal does have a PR rep on the payroll, who does right by him. But clearly this "comes naturally" to him as well. As we discussed last week: anyone can spew a few slick talking points into a microphone. Yet when your rival unexpectedly breaks down in tears and you have the wherewithal to step up and console him, you're revealing much more about your nature.

What's the source of this authentic good-guy-ness? Nadal was clearly "raised right" by a mom and dad who don't exactly cut the figure of stage parents. While Nadal's island of Majorca has a reputation as a trendy Euro-destination, Nadal's hometown of Manacors is an unassuming, close-knit place where class distinctions are fuzzy and folks go to great lengths to conceal their wealth. Nadal's uncle, Miguel Angel, the former pro soccer player, was the proverbial "role model," who offered an example of how a pro athlete ought to conduct himself. Give some credit to Federer, too, for demonstrating the top player can win everything in sight and still show grace and humility.

But I think the biggest influence is Uncle Nadal, or "Uncle Hard Ass," as Pete Bodo and I have taken to calling him. I think the Republic of Tennis has grown skeptical of the relative-cum-coach. But in this case, the player's uncle not only possesses a first rate tennis cortex, but also is one of the coaches who shapes lives. At an early age, he impressed upon Nadal that "just because you can hit a tennis ball well doesn't mean you're better than anyone else."

As Nadal ascended the org chart, there was uncle to make sure the kid stayed humble. A promoter offers to fly Nadal and his camp to a tournament. No thanks, says Toni, we already bought train tickets. Nadal goes to the practice courts at the 2008 U.S. Open and realizes he's forgotten his water bottles in the locker room. Never mind the eager volunteer happy to assist the tournament's top seed; Uncle T. (Raffa = Christopher Moltisanti?) makes his nephew run back and get it. A doctor offers to see Nadal immediately; no, says uncle, he'll take a seat in the waiting room like every one else.

You could write an entire chapter about Nadal's pleasant off-court personality and how jarringly at odds it is with on-court ferocity. But give the kid his due. He not only challenges Federer's skill but also gives him a run in the mensch department.

Federer's Web site had a collection of coverage of the Australian Open final. It takes a lot to put articles that almost ridicule you and pictures of you crying on your website. Is that site maintained by his management or is that his personal site where he has say on what goes there? If it is his personal site, he is a bigger man than I thought.
-- Mepa, Minnetonka, Minn.

• Great catch. While I doubt Federer is hand-picking the content for his Web site, this is telling. One could deduce that Federer's camp -- and, by extension, Federer himself -- is neither ashamed nor self-conscious about the postmatch episode last week.

Was I the only one who thought that when Serena said that Dinara had been "putting on a great show for women's tennis" that she was not talking about the final but about Dinara's showing in the tournament in general? Call me crazy, but I read Serena's statements about Dinara as genuine and gracious. She certainly knew how well Dinara was playing and had been playing for the past 9 months, and she had acknowledged it. And to me, it was just her giving credit to Dinara as a player, not as the opponent she just spanked a few minutes before.
-- Jackie Wong, Brooklyn

• Good point. And again, I think Serena handled this uncomfortable situation with real poise. A larger point: is there anything we could do to alter -- if not eliminate entirely -- these excruciating presentation ceremonies? From the USTA presidents' ritual of bungling names beyond recognition, to bank heads addressing "Christine" Henin, to Andre Agassi joking that his sponsor watch was headed for eBay, these occasions are just one big Blooper video waiting to happen. I know, I know. The sponsors "get value." The ballkids get recognized. The fans get to hear the players say a few nice words about the event. The suits get to go to the office Monday and hear the I-saw-you-on-tv-yesterday! compliments. But really. There's a mad libs feel to it all.

Here's a clip-and-save for future winners. Firm handshakes all around. Look at check/trophy with awed expression. "Wow. This is an amazing feeling. I've always loved this tournament. And I now have one more reason! First, you guys were amazing today. I enjoyed great crowd support all week. I also wanted to thank my team for getting me through, putting up with my quirks, peeling my grapes and arranging my toiletries in ascending order of height. I want to thank all the sponsors. I forget your names -- but, you, the Jack Donaghy-looking guy with the plastic smile, the dyed hair and the trophy wife. Thanks to you and your multi-national. And the volunteers. Thanks to [losing opponent]. It wasn't your day, but you have a bright future. See you all next year -- provided, of course, that the appearance fee checks clears. Begorrah!"

Having watched a lot of mediocrity (and sometimes worse) among some of the top ranked women lately, should we attach any significance to this report: Justine Henin will play the Belgian Tennis Trophy exhibition in Charleroi on 5-6 December, report Belgian press. The news comes a day after Kim Clijsters' management company announced that Clijsters was planning to take part in some exhibition events this year.
-- Mike Romeling, East Nassau, N.Y.

• At last check, our Belgian moles had told us that, despite the "softness" at the top of the WTA ranks, there was little indication that either Clijsters or Henin will be returning.

Still I wouldn't be surprised if either came back. Clijsters has already, apparently, consulted with Lindsay Davenport re: combining a resumed career with motherhood. And in Henin's case, given what we know about her competitive resolve, I don't see how she watches the current WTA reality show and doesn't think to herself, I really ought to be back in the cast.

A few years ago, I was talking with Martina Hingis about her "un-retirement." She essentially said that at first you love the break. You wake up when you want, eat what you want, start a relationship without worrying what happens when you leave for that Asia and Australia swing for six weeks. But eventually, this reality bites: you can ski, but you'll never be a world class skier. You can commentate but you'll never be the best. Eventually you gravitate back to your true gift.

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