Meeting Rafa's mentor

rafa-nadal.PNGThere are few people in this world that can say that they've beaten tennis superstar Rafa Nadal but even fewer that can say that they've schooled him. Isaac Mayolas, who you may have seen coaching Rafa how to bluff, is among that tiny elite but also holds the peculiar privilege of having been physically beaten by the 11-time Grand Slam champion, albeit playfully. If you haven't watched Rafa's first training video with Mayolas, now might be a good time. Mayolas encourages our man Rafa to play pocket fours and, well, it doesn't end brilliantly.

"On that hand I recommended to Rafa that he raise pre-flop with his pair of fours from the button. An ace came on the flop, and I said he should make a 'continuation bet', which is a bet that continues your show of strength, and you hope will make your opponent fold. It didn't work," said Mayolas, demonstrating why he was chosen to guide the king of clay into the world of poker.

"Rafa was raised and had to throw his cards away. As you can see from his reaction on the video, Rafa wants to win every hand he plays! While he is hitting me - just playfully, I add - he is saying in Catalan 'Pero que fots!' which is a friendly way of saying 'What the hell are you doing!' I think it's great. It shows that he's genuinely involved in the game, which is what poker is all about."

Nadal joined Team PokerStars SportStars in June of this year, and while he may be the undisputed 'King of Clay,' his poker credentials were a little lighter. He needed help. He needed a mentor to steer him through his early forays into the poker world.

Isaac steps up to the line
Mayolas was an early adopter of poker in Spain, picking the game up in 2000 before going on to win the 2006 Heads-Up Poker Championship for €125,000, beating UK grinder Paul Jackson in the final no less. The Spaniard has since split his time between playing and working behind the scenes in the online poker business, an ideal combination for someone to guide Rafa from the court to the baize.

The pair met for the first time the day after Rafa won his eighth consecutive Monte Carlo Masters, an incredible new record for consecutive tennis singles titles (and one that is unlikely to be broken).

"We actually played our first hands next to the trophy he'd just won, which was very cool. Since then, I've tried to approach Rafa like the normal person he is, as if he was one of my friends, and I think he really appreciates that. When the cameras are switched off he is even friendlier. He likes joking and having fun whatever he does, whether it's shooting a commercial, taking pictures with his fans, or having a poker lesson," said Mayolas.

Nadal may be one the friendliest figures in the sporting world, but that doesn't mean arranging some poker tuition is as simple as picking up a telephone.

"Sneaking into Rafa's agenda is a tough job, but we've been able to meet four times so far, and each session has been very productive. He is very smart and has picked up the game very quickly," Mayolas said.

"So far we've put a lot of effort into understanding the importance of hand selection based on position at the table. Hand selection and playing a solid game is twice as important for Rafa than for most players because so many people will try to outplay him. Who doesn't want to say 'I beat Rafa Nadal?'"

Playing fast, if not loose
He also reveals that Rafa's current poker preference is for Zoom poker, PokerStars' high-tempo ring game format. It's a great way to pick up experience as seeing more hands, particularly earlier in your poker career, will accelerate the speed of your learning.

"As he travels so much, Zoom is the perfect match for his lifestyle because he can enjoy short sessions of packed entertainment on the go with his iPad," said Mayolas.

So that probably means we shouldn't be expecting Rafa to be smashing up the high stakes tables at PokerStars quite yet.

"High stakes? I don't think so," Mayolas said. "Rafa is more interested in the competition and entertainment factor of the game than in the monetary return. Last time I saw him playing he was on a No-Limit Hold'em Zoom table with a €2 buy-in. I am sure that we'll see Rafa playing live sooner than later, but he needs proper training before he jumps into a sea of sharks. Rafa is extremely self demanding and he will not accept losing without a fight."


Nadal: is it obvious that he likes to win?

That much would be obvious for anyone that's seen the great dominate the tennis court with his explosive never-say-die style of play. Having read this, however, you now join an elite of knowing who's been coaching him: Isaac Mayolas, the mentor behind the tennis star.

If you fancy your chances against Rafa Nadal heads-up then maybe you'll want to take a shot at the Rafa Dream Day promotion where you can freeroll into an all-expenses trip to Mallorca where you get to meet the man himself.

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is a staff writer for the PokerStars Blog.

Rick Dacey
@PokerStars in Rafa Nadal