NEW YORK — Fans gathered Thursday evening at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, for delicious food and beverages served at 60 concession stands, official US Open 2013 souvenirs and an evening of tennis. Following Cynthia Wozniacki’s quick, straight set defeat of Chanelle Scheepers, it was the legendary Spanish clay court master, Rafael Nadal, who took to the court in the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in a second round match against Rogeria Dutra Silva of Brasil.
The number 2 seed, winner of 12 Grand Slam tennis events, including the 2010 US Open, boasts an impressive career win/loss record on hard courts of 637-125 and has earned some $60 million over the course of his illustrious career. Nadal has recently been on the comeback trail after missing the second half of last year due to a knee injury and the first part of 2013 due to a stomach virus. He has recently reached the finals in 11 of 12 tournaments, and won tournaments in both Cincinnati (USA) and Montreal (Canada).
The Mallorcan native is a crowd favorite at the US Open, where he boasts a record of 35-8. He did not let them down on Thursday. Crowds waiting in the long Kosher Grill line for overstuffed pastrami sandwiches, knishes or Italian sausage with onions and peppers would have missed a large part of the Nadal match; he defeated Dutra Silva 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 in just 92 minutes.
For Nadal, this has been a year of recovery. “When you are coming back after hard times, after an injury, after moments that you are not well, and you have the chance to be back, you need to work hard. You need to work with the right attitude every day,” he said later.
During Nadal’s hiatus from tennis, there has been a lot of speculation about how he would do upon his return — and some speculation about his family background.
It is well-known in tennis circles that Nadal is coached by his uncle, Toni Nadal, and he reportedly comes from a close-knit Mallorcan family. His mother is Ana Maria Parera and father is Sebastián Nadal. “Rafa,” as Nadal is affectionately called (and the Rafa name appears everywhere at the US Open at souvenir shirts and souvenir stands), is known more formally as Rafael Nadal Parera.
This “Parera” name has led to speculation in recent months that Nadal may have Jewish ancestry. Simcha Jacobovici, a filmmaker and Times of Israel blogger, made this carefully argued claim in an August 7, 2013 Times of Israel blogpost, Rafael Nadal: A Jewish Story?
The name “Parera,” notes Jacobovici, means pear tree, and is a common converso or convert name. “It’s the kind of ‘neutral’ name the newly baptized Jews adopted in the 15th century. Names like Parera, Torres, and Medina usually reflect a hidden Jewish past.”
Jacobovici makes a distinction between two types of “newly minted” Christians — those who tried to prove their loyalty to their new faith by being more anti-Semitic than the old Christians, and those who defended their countrymen and fellow conversos. One such 16h century defender was Jeronimo Nadal, from the area of Palma de Majorca; he was pro-converso, fluent in Hebrew, knowledgeable in Jewish religious texts, and, according to one report, was even offered the position of Chief Rabbi of Avinon, France in the 1560s.
Does Nadal know any of this? Jacobovici doesn’t know.
How could a journalist find out the real story? Given Nadal’s popularity and the nature of pro tennis events, it is nearly impossible to gain access to ask him directly. But here at the US Open, I hoped to find an opportunity to do so. I worried that the question might be inappropriate, out of context, embarrassing or even hurtful. Since I would not be granted an exclusive interview, I would need to ask the question in a crowded, post-match press conference.
I asked several experienced writers, including a woman who has been covering the US Open for 35 years. She said, “It is a fair question” and suggested I ask it toward the end of the Thursday press conference.
At the 10:50 p.m. press conference in media room 1, English and Spanish speaking writers and photographers assembled. We were told Nadal would first answer questions in English, then in Spanish. I asked mine: “It’s been reported recently that there might be some Jewish heritage in your family. Can you please comment?”
Nadal, who speaks English beautifully, apparently struggled to understand a word. A tennis official translated “Judio,” Jewish. Nadal hesitated, paused, and answered, “That’s not true. Really doesn’t matter for me. Doesn’t matter if I am or am not. But is not the case. I am not.”
Furthermore, a veteran tennis journalist colleague told me earlier Thursday that this is not a new question for Nadal. In fact, I was told, he has taken it seriously and has conducted extensive research into his family history. In the end, after speaking with grandparents and other relatives, there apparently do not appear to be Jewish roots in the Nadal family.
Unless, of course, somebody out there knows different.