Two water bottles and freezing cold showers: The story behind Rafael Nadal's rituals.

It’s no secret that tennis players are renowned for having bizarre match rituals and superstitions.

From demanding a particular "lucky ball", to wearing the same socks without washing them, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and dozens of other players are famous for their unique match quirks.

But when it comes to watching Rafael Nadal, the game often plays out like clockwork.

What happens when you take your tennis obsession from the court to the office? Tennis-obsessives will understand. Post continues below.

The men's world no. 2, who is currently competing at the Australian Open, has incredibly predictable behaviour on the court.

When Nadal arrives at each match, he plants his energy drink slightly in front of his water bottle with both labels perfectly facing the court. At every change of ends, he straightens his two water bottles – ensuring they’re perfectly aligned.

Before each and every serve, he places his hair behind his ear and fiddles with his shorts.

And after every single point, Nadal towels himself – even if he isn’t sweaty.


It’s an interesting line of behaviour that’s often led Nadal to be accused of deliberately wasting time to distract his opponents.

In fact, during a match at the Australian Open in 2020, Nick Kyrgios mimicked Nadal when the chair umpire gave him a time violation.

While playing against France’s Gilles Simon, the Australian tennis player pretended to tuck his hair behind his ears and picked at his underwear following the violation, mimicking Nadal’s habits.

Of course, one of Nadal’s most infamous court-side habits involves the specific placement of his water bottles.


In September 2019, Nadal appeared to get frustrated when a ball person placed a third water bottle in his area as he played against Croatia’s Marin Čilić.

Similarly, the Spaniard was involved in an incident with a ball person in 2020 during his match with Nick Kyrgios.

When a ball person accidentally moved an object (believed to be one of his water bottles) at his courtside bench, Nadal protested, leading to a number of boos from the Australian Open crowd.

"Rafa gave strict instructions to the ball boy not to touch something," Todd Woodbridge said in commentary.

"Someone touched something, outrage," tennis great John McEnroe added.

does rafael nadal have ocd
Image: Getty.

In his 2011 autobiography, Rafa, the tennis player denied that his water bottle ritual is based on superstition.

"I put my two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court," he wrote.

"Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose?" he explained.

"It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head."

In his autobiography, Rafa also wrote about his pre-match routine, sharing that he has a freezing cold shower roughly 45 minutes before a match.

"Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return. Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow," he said.

"I’m a different man when I emerge. I’m activated. I’m in 'the flow', as sports psychologists describe a state of alert concentration in which the body moves by pure instinct, like a fish in a current. Nothing else exists but the battle ahead."


In the past, some tennis fans have questioned whether the former world no. 1 could suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Despite the claims, Nadal has never confirmed or denied the reports.

In fact, when asked about his behaviour, Nadal responded: "It is something you start to do that is like a routine. When I do these things it means I am focused, I am competing – it's something I don't need to do but when I do it, it means I'm focused."

Nadal's uncle and coach, Tony Nadal, has also commented on the rituals, telling a Spanish website in 2012: "He has told me before he can stop doing them, and I have told him to do it."

He continued: "It does not affect his game, but if he needed those things to play well, it would be bad."


Here are just some of the behaviours and rituals that Nadal appears to partake in:

  • He has a freezing cold shower 45 minutes before the match.
  • He wears both socks at the same height.
  • He always places his bottles in the same exact position.
  • He carries one racket onto the court, and five rackets in his bag.
  • He ensures his opponent crosses the net before he does during a changeover.
  • He places his hair behind his ear and fiddles with his shorts or underwear before each serve.
  • He sips his energy drink and then his water, always in the same order.
  • He uses a towel after every single point.
  • He never rises from his seat before his opponent.
  • He avoids walking on the sidelines.
  • He doesn't put his headband on until just before he enters the court.

From a sports psychology perspective, Dr Adam Naylor, Director of Telos Sport Psychology Coaching said that habits like Nadal's often bring order and control to the sport.

"I see such things providing some consistency and sense of control," Dr Naylor told Al Jazeera.

"Superstitions are harmless for the most part but become harmful when they control the player rather than the player controlling them," he added.

"In tennis, routines between points allow the player to put the previous point behind them, relax and then get focused and energised for the point that lies ahead. That is crucial," Naylor added.

Of course, Nadal is not the only tennis player with unique quirks. Here are just some of the habits viewers have noticed in other players:

Serena Williams

  • If she is on a winning streak, she will continue to wear the same socks without washing them.
  • She bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second serve.
  • She ensures every member of her player box sits in the same spot for each and every match.

Roger Federer

  • He believes in the power of eight – he has eight bottles of water, eight rackets, and is often seen giving eight towel-rubs at the end of his set.

Dominika Cibulkova

  • She smells tennis balls before serving them: "I don't kiss the balls but I smell them. I love their smell, the smell of new balls. And then I think that it'll bring me luck."

Novak Djokovic

  • He insists that his poodle Pierre travels with him.
  • He doesn't like to use the same shower twice.
  • He has an obsession with ball bouncing ahead of a serve.

Richard Gasquet

  • When he wins a point, he often demands the same 'lucky ball' again. If he loses a point, he demands a ball that recently won him a point.
  • He frequently changes his racket grips.

Andre Agassi

  • Agassi won a match at the 1999 French Open after forgetting to wear underwear.
  • After winning the match, Agassi continued to never wear his underwear during matches.

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This post was originally published on January 29, 2020, and updated on February 9, 2021.

Feature Image: Getty.