A Buddy From Back Home In Nadal's Corner
Born just five months apart, fate brought Rafael Nadal (born 3 June 1986) and Bartolome "Tomeu" Salva-Vidal (20 November 1986) together on the tennis court when they were just children; first as opponents, then as friends and eventually as doubles partners. Their relationship has grown into that of student and coach, as Salva is one of three Team Nadal members tasked with training the World No. 1 on a regular basis.
They share more than just their age (33), a history and their current professional connection. Both took up tennis early, play left-handed, and were raised on the island of Mallorca, Spain. It was at a junior event in Nadal's hometown of Manacor where the youths first crossed paths.
“We were seven years old. He played at the Manacor Tennis Club with his uncle (Toni Nadal) and I lived in a nearby town, but I also went to school in Manacor," Salva recalls. “The first time I saw Rafa was at his club. It was my first tournament and I had to play against him in the second round. I lost 0-6, 0-6. I had no chance at all.”
It wasn't the result Salva had hoped for, but he walked off the court understanding there was a lot to learn from his peer, who was competing for Balearic Islands titles above his age category.
"I knew if I wanted to evolve as a player, I had to surround myself with players like him," Salva says. "A funny story I remember is we were leaving the court one time and I asked Rafa if he wanted to come over and hang out with me, and he said, 'No,' obviously, because he didn't even know me!"
As predicted, being around Nadal helped raise Salva's game as both players developed into the brightest talents to emerge from Mallorca's youth divisions.
"We started competing against each other at tournaments," the former junior standout explains. "We began practising together and from there we became friends. We got to know each other well and we wound up attending the Balearic Tennis Federation's academy in Palma."
From there, though, their paths diverged. At age 14, Salva accepted a scholarship from the Royal Spanish Tennis Federation, the governing body of tennis in Spain, and relocated to Barcelona. The same offer was extended to Nadal but he declined, opting instead to continue his development under the tutelage of Uncle Toni in Mallorca.
“In terms of level of play, I was a few years behind," Salva says. "We started spending less and less time together because we were living some distance apart. We bumped into each other at events but even that became less frequent because he was competing at more prestigious events. Still, we kept in contact almost daily.”
Despite entering the same Futures tournaments on several occasions, Nadal and Salva never faced off in an official match. They did, however, compete as a team in doubles matches, the first time as 15-year-olds in 2002 at an ATP Tour event in Mallorca — the same tournament where Nadal would score his first ATP Tour singles win by defeating Ramon Delgado. The two would join forces again later in the year at Futures events in Spain at Vigo and Irun.
Their best performances as a team came in 2007, when the Spaniards reached the final at ATP Tour events in Chennai and Barcelona. The tournament in Barcelona would be the closest they'd get to clinching a title.
By then, Nadal had already established himself as a top singles player by climbing to No. 2 in the ATP Rankings and lifting three consecutive Grand Slam titles at Roland Garros. Salva, just 21, decided to retire from regular competition, though he did compete sporadically in singles and doubles events over the next few years.
“I returned to Mallorca and I started working with the Balearic Tennis Federation in an education capacity for six or seven years," Salva says. "Then they proposed an academy program. We started developing a local tennis school and I ended up getting involved with the Rafa Nadal Academy's project.”
Joining the sports complex in Mallorca was Salva's first step toward coming full circle with Nadal. From boyhood rivals and childhood friends at the Manacor Tennis Club to his role as Pro Tour Coach at Nadal's training facility, the Spaniards established a bond that eventually led to a position on Nadal's core team, alongside fellow coaches Carlos Moya and Francisco Roig, physio Rafael Maymo and fitness trainer Joan Forcades. In addition to his duties with Team Nadal, Salva also oversees the professional progress of 22-year-old Jaume Munar and #NextGenATP star Casper Ruud.
“I'm tremendously grateful," the coach says. "I share the calendar season with Rafa for about 10 weeks and split the rest with Munar and Ruud.”
Picking out remarkable talents and predicting whether they'll live up to their promise or fall short of their potential is no easy task. With Nadal, though, Salva knew early on his comrade would develop into something special. As the amateur racked up medals and awards first on the Balearic Islands, then in Spain, and eventually throughout Europe, Salva was certain Nadal's high level of play would carry over into the professional ranks.
“It's hard to pin down the exact evolution of a player, but in Rafa you saw something that distinguished himself from the rest. He was a boy who, from an early age, you could tell would make a living playing tennis. I knew for sure he had not only the talent but also the mentality and the attitude to be a winner," Salva recalls.
“He had a clear vision of what he wanted to be from a very young age, something you don't often see in young people. Rafa was very clear that tennis was his passion, his world and his future," Salva says of his charge. "He turned pro at a young age and his game translated well immediately. He was competing against the best and winning. People knew back then he'd go on to accomplish great things."
Salva knew all those years ago what everyone knows now: Nadal is extraordinary. He's competed in over 1,000 tour-level matches (970-196) and has captured 84 titles, including 19 Grand Slams. He's spent a total of 197 weeks at No. 1 and regained that position on Monday.
What makes Nadal such a fine player? As someone who knows the Spaniard so well for so long, Salva has a few ideas as to what sets his friend apart.
“He's a great competitor and wants to be the best," Salva explains. "He's driven and since he was a young boy, he's loved to compete. He seems to thrive in the face of adversity, not only in tennis but in any sport he takes up or anything he does. He needs the competition practically every day. On top of that, he has always been a boy who loves to evolve. He studies his game, is passionate about what he does and has always been eager to get better. Rafa's not just like that on the court but off it as well; he has a deep interest in learning on all levels.”
It's an accurate explanation, and an intimate depiction, from a lifelong friend and discerning coach.