MEN’S TENNIS HAS WITNESSED plenty of players fueled by a raging internal fire. Take Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, for instance. The problem is, they’re usually unable to harness the intensity once the match ends. Tennis has had its share of players projecting humility and self- possession too. Federer springs immediately to mind. But the nice-guy demeanor works to those players’ detriment on the court. Nadal manages to, as the sports shrinks put it, compartmentalize, competing with passion but then morphing into the most grounded professional athlete you could hope to meet. “Of course I want to win,” he says. “But at the end [of the day], it’s just a sport.”

To understand Nadal, it helps to understand his hometown of Manacor, an unprepossessing pocket on the Spanish island Majorca. While Majorca is a trendy resort destination favored by Europe’s elite, Manacor is a dusty, homey town at odds with the region’s more upscale reputation. It’s the kind of place where neighbors drop by unannounced and folks do not flaunt their wealth. Nadal’s grandfather, also named Rafael, is the clan’s paterfamilias and was the longtime conductor of the local orchestra. Nadal’s father, Sebastien, runs a successful real-estate-development/glass-installation company. The clan lived together in an apartment building, each family occupying its own floor.

Nadal’s uncle, Miguel Angel, was a fearsome soccer player, a member of three Spanish World Cup teams. As a boy, Nadal played plenty of soccer. But he gravitated toward tennis, the sport favored by another of his uncles, Toni. Like a kid scrawling in a coloring book but still managing to stay within the lines, Nadal could slug the ball and do it with accuracy. Toni set some ground rules, telling Nadal, “First, if you ever throw a racket, we’re finished. They’re expensive, and when you throw a racket, you don’t just disrespect the sport, you disrespect all the people who can’t afford equipment. Second, losing is part of competing. You will lose. And when you lose, it’s not going to be my fault or the fault of your racket or the balls or the courts or the weather. It is your fault, and you will accept it and try and do better next time. Third, have fun. When you stop enjoying this, it’s no good. You’ll find something else that gives you pleasure.”

Toni also noticed that when his nephew played soccer, he was just as skilled -- if not more so -- when he struck the ball with his left foot. He figured he’d try to get the kid to use his “off hand” in tennis, a sport that affords a natural advantage to southpaws. Nadal could barely hold a fork with his left hand. (To this day, when he tries to write with his left hand, it looks like a kindergartner’s scrawl.) But he could still maneuver a tennis ball. It didn’t hurt that he’d developed a pair of Popeye forearms to complement a strong set of legs or that he had a real taste for battle, enjoying the combat as much as the tennis itself.

As young Nadal’s body expanded, Toni was there to make sure that his head didn’t. When Nadal won the Balearic Islands tennis championship for his age group, Toni showed him a list of previous winners. “How many names do you recognize?” Toni asked.

“Not many,” Nadal responded.

“Exactly,” said Toni.

As word of Nadal’s talent spread, the Spanish Tennis Federation attempted to lure him to a training academy in Barcelona. Thanks but no thanks, he said. He was fine playing at the local tennis club in Manacor. When it was suggested that he could benefit from a “real” coach, he brushed that off as well. His uncle may never have been a professional player, but he knew the sport, he knew Nadal’s temperament, and, above all, he was family. Plus, the price was right. “My brother pays me,” says Toni. “When a boy pays a man, it’s not right; it’s not normal.”