Rada Nadal triumphs in grudge match against Ronaldo as SportStars duel
A tennis match on Centre Court is arguably the most intense one-to-one experience in sports. Scratch that. A penalty shoot-out at the end of a match at a World Cup finals is arguably the most intense one-to-one experience in sports.
While purists can argue either side of that debate, it is without question that to possess the aptitude required to find oneself in either of those situations demands talents beyond which us mere mortals can possibly even dream.
But for Rafa Nadal, the PokerStars SportStar and world-beating tennis player, it is all part of the day job. He has won 14 Grand Slam titles among 64 career tournament victories, plus an Olympic Gold medal. He has spent 46 weeks as World No 1.
Similarly for Ronaldo, the PokerStars SportStar and Brazilian all-time soccer legend, a penalty shoot-out is merely the most intense moment of an all-consuming profession. He has won two Fifa World Cups, two Copa Americas, a Fifa Confederations Cup medal and represented the best football nation in the world 98 times. He has scored more than 300 goals in the most testing conditions in the game. He is the only man ever to be named Fifa World Player of the Year three times.
In recent years, the two sportsmen have turned their attentions to poker. Their intense competitive spirit knows no bounds. In December last year, the tennis and soccer legends were each part of an event at the European Poker Tour (EPT) in Prague during which Nadal sealed a debut triumph at the poker tables, while Ronaldo went home with tail between his legs.
But immediately afterwards, Ronaldo issued a challenge to the newly-crowned poker champion that the two of them should strip away all the other distractions, and the other players, and play heads-up poker, mano-a-mano for the right to call themselves the champion of PokerStars' SportStar stable. It would be a match to imitate the conditions they had known as top-level sportsmen, albeit with the prize of $50,000 heading to the winning player's charity of choice, while the loser prepared for a forfeit.
Today in London, at the PokerStars Live card in the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square, this challenge reached its inevitable climax. Nadal and Ronaldo sat either end of a poker table in front of press from across the world and duked it out for personal supremacy.
When all was said and done, Ronaldo took his final shot with Q♠7♠, all in blind -- the poker equivalent of a daisy-cutter shot trickling towards the goal-line. Nadal turned over A♥[10h], in the circumstances the equivalent of a booming first serve, which duly thwacked Ronaldo's effort out of the park. Before too many sporting metaphors get tangled in this paragraph, however, perhaps it's time to rewind to the start of events this evening.
Ronaldo and Nadal arrived to the Hippodrome Casino at their allotted call time of 8pm to find a press pack waiting outside, as well as a press pack inside camped around the poker table for a tutorial from two of the game's best. Jake Cody, of Team PokerStars Pro, and Fatima Moreira de Melo, another PokerStars SportStar played a quick single-table tournament with invited media, giving the journos a run through the rules.
Joe Stapleton called the action, and there was the customary amount of folding when first to act, checking when bet into and triumphant turning over of four-card straights. But after the arrival of the superstars, the press pack retreated to the bleachers, behind their cameras and dictaphones. Ronaldo strolled forward in blue jeans and a blue-and-white checked shirt. Nadal showed up in what has become his customary poker uniform: neat trousers, crisp white shirt and blue blazer. The might both have walked from an office in the City to the casino.
After a warm handshake for the cameras, the players took their seats. They were reminded of the rules -- a 20-minute session at the end of which the player with the most chips wins. We were high up on the balcony above the casino pit below; lights twinkling in the background beneath the cavernous auditorium of this former theatre and concert hall.
Ronaldo pulled out the first aggressive move, plucking some librarian's spectacles from his shirt pocket. Things had gotten serious. Stapleton, still on the microphone, suggested Nadal check the former footballer's feet for movement. He told a sceptical audience of players and spectators about the existence of "foot tells".
The early action was circumspect: raise, fold. Raise, call, bet, fold. Stapleton tried to stir up some conversation by getting Nadal to talk about his love for football, and in particular Real Madrid, for whom Ronaldo made 127 appearances.
"But he also played for Barcelona [Real's arch rivals]," Nadal said. "He played with my uncle."
"I met him when he was about six years old," Ronaldo said, remembering the time that a young Nadal would come to the Nou Camp to watch Miguel Ángel Nadal, the so-called Beast of Barcelona, who terrorised opposition players in a glittering soccer career.
The tournament clock ticked down with no pots of note. Nadal perhaps took a small lead, before Ronaldo clawed some back. "Normally I am not a very, very aggressive player," Nadal confessed in the post-tournament press conference, and his timidity allowed Ronaldo to pinch a series of small pots and regain what amounted to parity when the tournament supervisor announced the last hand.
On that final deal, it was a clear case of all or nothing, which prompted the all in shove from Ronaldo. Nadal checked his cards and made what was a mandatory call in the circumstances. The big ace stood up and Nadal prevailed again. He had secured the $50,000 cheque for the Rafa Nadal Foundation, while Ronaldo had a date with some dirty dishes. He would wash up the plates from the tapas that soon made their way around the audience.
After a breather for the players and the sustenance for the masses, we reassembled for a press conference and the chance to quiz the sporting minds on their poker prowess.
"I had a great coach," Nadal said, when asked how he managed to pick up poker so quickly, despite still competing at the highest level. "He gave me the opportunity to learn more about the poker game. It really helped me a lot. When you learn more and more about this game, you enjoy playing it more. You understand that it's not a game of luck. There is luck in some moments, but in general the best players will win."
Ronaldo's introduction to poker had come much earlier, when he found himself regularly trapped with football squads travelling the world for matches. "We are 22 players and I started to play poker in the hotel with other players, waiting for the games," he said. "We had a lot of fun playing poker."
Ronaldo is now retired and is able to focus more on his poker game, stressing the importance of study and practice to get better. Nadal, who has been suffering from injury during the latter part of the current tennis season emphasised the same points, underlining the significance of keeping the game fun.
"Normally I play tournaments," he said. "I understand that normally I don't have time to play a long period of time. I like to play sit and goes, online, especially the hyper turbos. I'm not playing for a big amount of money. I play at a level I feel comfortable with. I have lost more than I have won, but through that I have had some good moments."
He continued: "This second part of the year for me was tough because I had a lot of injuries. I didn't have the chance to practice all of the different sports, tennis or golf, so I played a lot of poker with my friends and my family. I had a lot of free afternoons and I spent it playing poker with them and it was a very good way to stay entertained.
"It's very important to work on your game, to study and to understand. After that, it's like anything: you need time to practice. You need hundreds or thousands of poker games to learn. Every time you play you feel more comfortable.
"In poker you need to control your emotions, and in the world of sport that is the same. You need to have the right self-control, you need to analyse your opponents and how he plays every game. You need to understand when to go for it, so the strategy always should be an important part of sport, and there is no exception in poker."
Ronaldo rebuffed suggestions from the audience that he might want to become a professional player. "I am happy being a recreational player," he said. "It is not an easy job to be a professional. For good or for bad, I don't have the time to dedicate himself to being a professional, but I am super-happy being a recreational player and playing games with my friends."
He also chuckled at the prospect of a heads-up duel with Neymar, his successor as the most potent striker in Brazil colours. "I'd love to play against him, but Neymar is also playing with his friends," Ronaldo said. "He is a good player and if PokerStars could arrange an event..."
As you might expect for two superstars of court and football field, questions shifted to matters pertaining to sport: Nadal's injury, a recent spat between Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka and a once-in-a-lifetime defeat for Ronaldo's beloved Brazil in the World Cup semi-final against Germany this summer.
Meanwhile the poker players in the audience, and those keen to learn, shifted their gaze upward to the high mezzanine of the Hipppodrome Casino where the action on the baize was heating up for the night.
Nadal and Ronaldo slipped off for more interviews: Nadal again with head held high and Ronaldo slouching back to the training videos and strategy books, also seeking a dish-cloth. One suspects we have not heard the last of this personal duel just yet.