By Andy Buchan
Ahead of his return to Dubai, Rafael Nadal talks to Andy Buchan about tennis cheats and Roger Federer.
With more charisma than Roger Federer and an uncanny habit of beating the seemingly invincible Swiss master, Rafael Nadal is poised to become one of the greats. Ahead of his return to Dubai, the world's number two talks to Andy Buchan about tennis cheats, being 22 and, of course, Roger Federer.
What makes a winner? Is it their impeccable record? Is it their ability to entertain a crowd, perhaps in spite of the result? Or is it a mystical, and almost indefinable quality where the two are brilliantly combined?
Whatever the formula, winning in the men's tennis championship in the last 10 years has been a near impossible task. First there was the dastardly-good Pete Sampras who topped the ATP rankings for a record six years and dominated the game so much that Tennis Magazine called him the greatest player of the last 40 years. Then along came that other tennis Terminator, Roger Federer, who for several years now has decimated anyone in his path.
While the winning record of these two champions is immense - Sampras won 77 per cent of his matches while Federer is currently cruising along at a peerless 80 per cent win rate - one thing that can be asked is; did they make tennis boring? Sure , they swept all and sundry before them, but many would argue they lacked personality and the ability to connect with their audience.
One thing is not up for debate: Rafael Nadal, the young pretender to the world's number one title, has on-court charisma to burn. Distinctively dressed - the flared pantaloons he once sported caused a stir in the fashion world - his tanned, lithe figure combined with a dashing ponytail makes him more Milan catwalk than centre court.
And, aged just 22, he has already denied Federer three Grand Slams (the young Spaniard currently boasts an 8-6 lead, mainly thanks to his undisputed dominance on clay), earned in excess of US$15 million and won over a legion of fans thanks to his dynamic playing style. But despite all these achievements, Nadal is still reminiscing about the first tour victory, when he was just 15.
‘It was something extraordinary since I was playing at an ATP tournament at home in Mallorca,' he says through a translator - his English is improving we're told, but not up to interview standard yet. ‘Yes, I remember that match. I was lucky to receive an invitation to play and I managed to win that first match.'
If that opening victory was impressive - by defeating Ramon Delgado he became only the ninth player to record an ATP win before his 16th birthday - then the preceding one surely set the tone for his career. Aged just 14 and playing an exhibition match against Antipodean ace Pat Cash, Nadal narrowly edged out the Wimbledon winner.
Part of the reason for that has to be his double-handed back hand, an eye-catching and uncommon sight in the men's game that he says allows him to open up the angles on the court before unleashing his devastating topspin shots.
From there, Nadal went on to become the most complete clay court player in the world, with his purple patch lasting a record-breaking 81 matches before he suffered defeat at the hands of his tennis nemesis, Roger Federer. And it's against the Swiss swinger that Nadal has produced some his most jaw-dropping tennis.
‘I agree and many of our matches have been great,' he says in his garrulous Spanish. ‘I remember especially the final in Rome, last year's Wimbledon final, Roland Garros two years ago and the Dubai final, also two years ago. Great matches with a great level of tennis.'
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Remember this tennis prodigy is merely a 22 year old manboy - a full five years younger than Federer - and, if he lived in Dubai, would only have been allowed in a pub for a year. Not only does he have to come racquet to racquet with some of the finest athletes on the face of this planet, and frequently best them, he also has to contend with interview requests, sponsorship pressures, charity obligations and, something that most of us find hard enough in itself; growing up.
‘It is not a problem at all,' he says when asked about the pressure. ‘I have a normal life as a tennis player. I enjoy it since I do what I like. There are things like not being at home that are hard but that's the way it is. I have people in my team helping me to coordinate the agenda and everything is done in a professional way. I am used to it and I enjoy the competition.'
If it all sounds a little mechanical and staid, then that's undoubtedly because it is. He's clearly been well-versed in the art of media conversation. And equally when we probe about the match fixing claims that Andy Murray hinted at last year, he's equally cautious. ‘I have said it many times,' he says. ‘I have never seen anything strange and never been approached, so as far as I know or am concerned there is nothing.'
But his youthful honesty does briefly surface when we ask if, as a young man, he feels at ease playing with the best of the best on a weekly basis?
‘Playing comfortably? I still don't know about that,' he says, his exuberance faltering. ‘I do have the ambition to keep improving and to be a better player; the titles and points will come if I continue to improve. I would like to win slams, of course, but I try to win at every tournament I enter.'
And that determination shows in his second-to-only-one record to date. Last year he won the French Open, defeating Federer in the final - giving him a two match advantage in their head-to-head battles - while this year he reached the Australian semis where he lost to the eventual winner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But the $64,000 question - although the winner's purse will far exceed that amount in Dubai - is can he beat Federer?
‘I don't know. I suppose I will need first to win which is not easy and then decide what to do. Step by step.' A man who's growing up with every tournament, a victory in Dubai would be the latest chapter in his bid to be tennis' next big winner.