Rafael Nadal does not tweet. He has no line of supermodel girlfriends, no lines on Entourage. He has no celebrity chef. He has no McMansion on the 18th green, no Manhattan crash pad, no tax-sheltered residence in Monte Carlo. A private jet? Please. Last summer Chris Fowler, the ESPN announcer, broadcast the Cincinnati ATP tournament and flew back to New York City in first class. As he gathered his suitcases at LaGuardia, he spotted Nadal. "Hey, Rafa, I didn't realize you were on the flight," Fowler said. Then he realized that Nadal had been sitting in the back of the plane.
This was no fluke. Fresh from winning the Tokyo ATP event last October—and surpassing $9 million in prize money for 2010—Nadal surprised other passengers on Air China's 3½-hour flight to Shanghai by settling into seat 29C. "I listen to my music," Nadal says of his in-flight habits. "It sounds the same as it does in [first class]."
In men's tennis, though, Nadal occupies seat 1A. If 2010 marked the year that Spain became a sports powerhouse—a World Cup title for the national soccer team, a Tour de France victory for Alberto Contador and another NBA ring for the Lakers' Pau Gasol—Nadal was el mejor de todos. He not only took the top ATP ranking from Roger Federer (who travels on NetJets) but also won three of the four major singles titles. When the Australian Open begins in Melbourne on Monday, he will try to do what no other man has achieved since Rod Laver in 1969: earn a fourth straight Grand Slam championship.
Barely a year ago Tennis Nation came to a rare agreement and declared Federer the best player in history. Now it's reconsidering. Nadal has won nine majors to Federer's record 16, but at age 24 he's ahead of Federer's pace. Plus, Nadal leads their head-to-head series 14--8. All of that makes for a heated debate, but don't expect Nadal to fan the flames. It's not just that he declines to toot his own vuvuzela—he casts his vote for the other guy. "For me, it is Roger," Nadal says. "What he does for so many years is incredible."
Great as their on-court rivalry may be, there's so little tension between them that this off-season they played three exhibition matches—including one in Switzerland to benefit Federer's charity and one in Spain to benefit Nadal's. (Nadal won two of the three.) A commercial to promote the home-and-home series took unnecessarily long to tape because Federer and Nadal kept making each other laugh. Ali-Frazier this isn't.
Like Federer's courtliness, Nadal's almost pathological humility serves him well when he plays. How can an opponent summon the animus to beat a guy who is so damn nice? Anyone can make a self-effacing remark at a press conference; Nadal has done it so often that it's beyond calculation. As Nadal paraded around Arthur Ashe Stadium with the U.S. Open trophy last September after beating Novak Djokovic in the final, he spotted his vanquished foe leaving the court. Nadal immediately stopped, put down the trophy and clapped, letting Djokovic soak up the applause. "Rafa was raised by a good family," says the Spanish player Fernando Verdasco. "Good values."
The lone knocks on Nadal are that he indulges in a bit of psychological warfare—before the prematch coin toss to determine who will serve, he makes his opponent wait at the net while he sits courtside, sips water and eats an energy bar—and that he has received mid-match guidance from his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal. The latter transgression, a breach of ATP rules, ignited a firestorm on tennis message boards. Yet in 2010 fellow players voted to give Rafa the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award. "That's such a satisfaction," Nadal says. "The players know who is fair and who isn't."
Imposing results, exceeding popularity and looks that aren't exactly troll-like—sounds like marketing gold, doesn't it? Yet while Nadal is indisputably a global star, his endorsement portfolio is estimated at $17 million, less than one third of Federer's. In the U.S., in particular, he remains underexposed. Some of this is due to his English, which is still endearingly flawed (doubts, to Nadal, are dubits) leaving him unprepared for, say, Jon Stewart's guest chair. But perhaps more important, Nadal has no use for the trappings of fame. Award-show appearances and celebrity "brand extensions" just aren't part of his M.O. (For this story, his camp consented to an interview but declined a photo shoot.)
When Nadal's handlers attempt to "fame him up," bad things happen. Last year he appeared as an awkward bystander in a Shakira video; now it's among his least favorite conversation topics. His agents landed him a deal with Richard Mille, a watchmaker whose timepieces sell for as much as $500,000. Sure enough, Nadal lost the watch.
So, Rafa, when are you finally going to start acting like a star?