Really great interview with Rafa by Neil Harman for The TImes Online.
The first question is as inevitable as the warmth of his greeting and he answers: “I'm a little bit tired, but only in the shoulder because of so much practice. The knee is perfect.”
And how does he view the onset of another year, his seventh on the tour, having burst on to the scene as a 15-year-old in Monte Carlo in April 2003? “Of course, like everyone I am going to be a little bit nervous but after a couple of matches, you find your rhythm and start to play your normal level,” he says. “Am I afraid of anything? I don't think afraid is the correct word. Maybe worried a little bit because when I go out on court, if it is the Wimbledon final, or the first round of Umag, I know I can lose but also I know I have a very good chance to win. In the final of Wimbledon this year, there was a chance I could lose but I was not afraid to lose.”
It has not taken Nadal long to be drawn to the match to end all matches in 2008 and for many a long year. Though he concedes that surviving the endurance test of the clay-court season and winning its brutal finale, Roland Garros, in four consecutive springs takes the biscuit, his success on Wimbledon's grass, against someone on the brink of a sixth straight victory in Roger Federer, gave him the singular emotion that will never be topped. Nadal led by two sets to love, lost the interrupted third set on a tie-break and, having had two match points in the fourth-set tie-break, was pegged back. “I was still very positive,” Nadal says, though the combined body language of his support team suggested that they were not quite so upbeat. “I knew I was a little bit closer to losing than a few moments before, but I was still close to winning so I continued to be positive.
“I knew it was important for me to hold serve for the first three games. If I had chances on his serve, that would have been perfect, but I needed to get to 3-3 at least because I knew after he had won the third and fourth sets, he has to be thinking he can push me hard in the fifth. All I was thinking was to hold my serve and, as it turned out, he served better than me in that fifth, but I was telling him that I was still here. If I get it to 4-4, 5-5 then the pression [Nadal's word for pressure] is equal for both, no?” Seemingly, Nadal never doubted. “It is stupid to think negative,” he says. “If you dream a lot to win Roland Garros, to win Wimbledon, why should you be negative? Everybody said that the style of the game is not for Rafa, the grass. When I arrived at the French Open this year, I had won three titles on clay, so I am a favourite; Federer won Estoril, finals at Monte Carlo and Hamburg, he is a favourite, Djokovic won Rome and had semi-finals in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, so he is a favourite, too.
“On clay, I know the tactics, it is play there [pushing his arm out to the right], there [to the left] and change to there [we shan't give that one away]. Who is the No 1, No 5, No 10, No 30 on grass? On grass, there is not always that security. Two good returns and you can have break points and the match is there.
“Last year, I had a terrible draw, Mardy Fish in the first round, Robin Söderling [a match that spanned five days], Mikhail Youzhny, Tomas Berdych, Djokovic and then lost to Roger in the final, being so close to winning.
“Maybe my best chance was gone, so yes I cried, for about half an hour. I cry in special situations, that is OK, no? This year, I played Queen's just for fun - one win, two wins, is OK - then I won the title [admitting that the final against Djokovic was not for fun at all], so instead of zero preparation, I am prepared. I am comfortable. I am a favourite. It is different. To win this time, I tell you, is the most special.”
Nadal, by dint of this and many other achievements, usurped Federer as the No 1 player after a 237-week reign. Surely it has changed the way he views his relationship with the Swiss. “Believe me, nothing changes,” he says. “I was very happy being No 2 and I am very happy being No 1 now, but I have no different feelings from five months ago. I had titles before this year. I should change my feelings about him because of one number? That's stupid.”
Being No 1 at the start of the year will bring an added pression and the theory goes that Nadal's style, the honesty of his physical approach, the relentlessness of running, is bound to catch up with him sooner rather than later. “You remember me at 16?” he says. “The same argument. Now I am 22 and everything is going very well. I respect and accept opinions but sometimes people talk without thinking. They say my career is going to be short, but already it is seven years. If I stop at 25, that is ten years. But you know, watching me play now than from three years ago, I do a lot less running because I play more ‘inside' the court and I have improved my shots.
“The end of my career may be because of [physical aspects] but I think it will come when I have no more the illusion to improve my tennis, when the motivation to win titles - and not only grand-slam titles - has gone. If I am No 20 in the world and my satisfaction with my game is still high, I will play. But to play eight more years with this calendar, I tell you, that is impossible.”
At that, he departs, to prepare for a lot more hours of practice, a family Christmas in Mallorca, where he will play his part in the Christmas Eve ritual of the procession of the three kings to Christ's manger, open his presents, then travel to his mother's parents' home, on Christmas Day, for lunch.
Gambas (prawns to you and me) will be on the menu, he says. He shakes hands and you are reminded that, during the conversation, he was asked how he might like to be remembered when all is said and done. “As a good person,” he says. “Nothing special, just a good person.”
Squee! Love him.