A common theme in pro sports involves young players having to face their childhood idol. For the late Kobe Bryant, that meant having to try and hold his own against an aging but still talented Michael Jordan. Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal took a slightly different approach in facing his childhood hero, the Brazilian soccer star known as Ronaldo.
In 2014, the two men squared off in a game that neither of them played professionally: poker. Let’s look at Nadal’s childhood hero and his most memorable game of cards ever.
A multi-talented childhood
Nadal grew up on the Spanish island of Mallorca. His earliest sports passion was not for tennis, but rather for soccer. A big influence in that regard was his uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, who played professionally for a number of teams, including FC Barcelona. Meanwhile, another of Nadal’s uncles introduced him to the game of tennis at the tender young age of three years old.
Yet soccer remained Nadal’s chief passion. And his favorite player in the soccer world was—you guessed it—Ronaldo. At one point, Nadal’s soccer-playing uncle was even able to get Nadal into Ronaldo’s dressing room for a photo. As Nadal later recalled the episodel, according to FIFA:
“I’m a huge fan of Ronaldo, I’ve followed his career since his time at Barcelona. I once asked my uncle Miguel Angel [Nadal] if I could get a photo with him. So I even got to go in the dressing room and have a photo taken with one of my biggest idols. There’s no doubt that overcoming adversity, making it back to the very top of the game and winning trophies deserves huge credit.”
Nadal continued to excel at both sports throughout his childhood. Eventually, however, Nadal’s father grew worried that Nadal would fail at school if he continued to focus on two sports. The time had come for a decision. As Nadal himself put it succinctly, reports Essentially Sports: “I chose tennis. Football had to stop straight away.”
Rafael Nadal’s tennis career
Over the course of 19 years since turning pro in 2001, Nadal has established himself as one of the greatest tennis players of all time — if not THE greatest. The Spaniard has won a total of 84 career titles. 19 of those titles were Grand Slam Singles Titles, placing him just one behind his rival Roger Federer for the top place on the all-time list.
Most analysts consider Nadal the indisputable greatest player on clay courts of all time. Many also consider him the best all-around player. Once again, his only real adversary for that title is Federer. Commentators seem to agree that, if Nadal can manage to surpass Federer’s Grand Slam record, he will move into the number one position. It’s also worth noting that the two players have matched up 40 times, with Nadal coming away with the victory on 24 occasions.
Defeating a childhood idol
Nadal’s life came full circle in 2014 when he found himself facing off against his childhood idol Ronaldo at a charity poker game hosted by PokerStars. Of course, if Nadal was nervous, he didn’t let it show. On the contrary, he coolly outplayed Ronaldo over the course of their 20-minute match, refusing to fall for his hero’s attempts to bluff him.
As it turns out, according to the Poker News, that match up wasn’t the first time the two men had faced each other at a poker table. They played a match the previous December, with Nadal also coming away with the win in that charity event. Following his second victory, Nadal had this to say:
“Ronaldo is a football great and it’s amazing for me to have the opportunity to face him at the poker table. I’m happy for a rematch if Ronaldo is up to the challenge.”
From all accounts, the two stars have not yet played another round. Perhaps Ronaldo is too worried about losing a third time to the card shark Nadal.