Rafael Nadal is already one of the all-time greats of tennis. As he prepares to play here in Abu Dhabi, Helena Frith Powell speaks to the world No. 1 about winning and losing, and how his solid home base in Majorca makes him the most grounded of sporting superstars.
The world's No. 1 tennis player is far less imposing in real life than he is on the court. He is sitting on a leather sofa, wearing a rather lurid green top and white tracksuit bottoms, tapping away at his BlackBerry as I walk in for our meeting. When the PR person introduces us, he stands up, smiles and shakes my hand. I am slightly disappointed. I had expected to meet the Jonah Lomu of tennis, a player who has grown men quavering in their sponsored socks. But who I am confronted with is more like a teenager.
Having said that, he is a young man with an extremely impressive record. Rafael Nadal has won nine Grand Slam titles, the first one (the French Open) in 2005. And again in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, earning him the nickname, The King of Clay.
He won Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010, becoming only the second Spaniard to do so after Manuel Santana, 20 years before Nadal was born. He won the Australian Open in 2009 and the US Open in 2010. He also won an Olympic gold medal for Spain in Beijing in 2008.
Despite his success, he has stayed grounded. He is one of the most popular players on the circuit, in part due to his humility. He puts it down to his family and the upbringing he has had. When he was 14 the Spanish tennis federation was keen to send him for training in Barcelona, the heart of Spanish tennis. His family declined, preferring to keep him close. The gamble paid off, both in terms of the player (he joined the men's tour the following year, at the age of 15) and his personality. "However well you do, you have to realise that you are just another person," he says. "On the tennis court you may be different, you may be a star, but when you walk off the court you are not. It is very important to stay grounded.
"My will to win comes from my education," he adds. "Whether you are a tennis player, or whatever you do, education is the basis of everything."
Nadal's style of play has been described as aggressive, athletic and supremely defensive. Some say he "muscled" his way to the top of tennis, others call him one of the most intimidating players of the open era. With his 3,200rpm topspin (Roger Federer's is 2,500 and Andre Agassi's was 1,800), his capacity to cover the whole court and an attitude that never says die, he must be horrible to play against. And although his rivalry with Federer is the stuff of legend, you have to wonder if the Swiss player isn't thinking: "Why the hell did he have to come along?" Because without Nadal on the scene, he would undoubtedly have broken even more records.
Nadal first played tennis when his Uncle Toni (a former tennis pro) spotted that he had a talent for the game. At the time, Nadal was just three. As he grew older it became apparent that he was also an incredibly gifted footballer (his Uncle Miguel had played for Barcelona and Spain). At 12 he had to choose between the two; he went for tennis. Uncle Toni continued to coach him, and still does, although he has never been paid to do so.
"I always wanted to be a sportsman," Nadal says in his strong Spanish accent. "I wanted to be a tennis player or a football player and I am happy that I ended up doing what I always wanted to do." Would he encourage any future little Rafa Nadals to take up tennis? "Yeah sure, why not? It is a difficult life but things in life are normally difficult, there is nothing easy."
Nadal is also an excellent golfer and plays when he gets time off from tennis, which is hardly ever. He trains for four to six hours a day, every day. When he won the US Open he was asked how he was going to celebrate. He replied that celebrating is hard when "you know you have to train again the next day".
For Nadal, there seems to be time for tennis and home time; nothing else is as important. "Whenever I can I spend time with my family and friends at home. For me, that is simply the best, I enjoy every minute of it," he smiles. His girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perello is also from his hometown. The couple have been dating since 2006, but he won't talk about her. They apparently met when they were at school and given his outlook on life, it is hardly surprising he has picked a girl from his own backyard.
His secure background (despite his parents' divorce in 2009, which he has admitted affected him badly) helps him cope with the pressures of fame. "I don't really feel it too much, maybe because I come from Majorca and it's a quiet place. I go there as much as I can, but it's tough, I am travelling almost every week."
We speak shortly after his defeat at the hands of Federer at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. How upset was he about that? "Roger played great in London and there wasn't much I could do. I tried but I found the best Roger. But I wasn't really upset since I tried my best and gave all I had."
He says that losing in general still scares him. "At match point I get very nervous. In fact I am still nervous every time I go on court, because I am still scared of losing." He pauses and sighs. "Tennis is a terrible sport for that; one day you win but the next it is just like starting all over again. I suppose the one good thing about losing is that when you win you feel it more. Although I would prefer to win every time." He laughs, and comes across as an extremely affable and fairly easy-going young man. But he is a player who is famous for his mental strength and, despite his youth and congenial demeanour, I would definitely rather sit opposite him on a sofa than face him across a net. One gets the impression he is a rather different person on court.
But he is very much a star off court now too, despite his best efforts to deny it. His appearance in the Shakira video Gypsy, is compulsive viewing for more than just tennis fans. Soon he will join other sporting heroes David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo as the face of Armani Underwear and Armani Jeans for the Spring/Summer 2011 collection. One can only hope they find him a pair of underpants he won't be constantly adjusting. Does he enjoy this side of his career? "It's not that important to me," he says. "But I have done some things that have nothing to do with tennis but more as an experience in life."
Our time is up and I ask him if I can take his picture, obviously on the pretext that it is for my son. I inadvertently call him by his nickname, Rafa. I apologise. "That's fine," he laughs again. "Rafa works for me."
Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will be playing at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, which starts on Thursday in Abu Dhabi. Many consider their rivalry to be the greatest in tennis history.
The men have played each other 22 times, with Nadal winning 14 of their meetings. Seventeen of the matches have been tournament finals, including seven Grand Slam finals, of which Nadal has won five.
Their first match was in 2004, in the third round of the Miami Masters where Rafa (aged only 17 and then ranked 34 in the world) shocked everyone by beating Federer (who was then world No. 1) in straight sets. Their Wimbledon final in 2008 is generally regarded as one of the best tennis matches ever. It went on for four hours and 48 minutes, the longest-ever Wimbledon final. Nadal won the match and his first Wimbledon title by taking the fifth set 9-7.
At their last meeting, the ATP Word Tour Finals in London last month, Federer beat Nadal. Their next meeting could be here in Abu Dhabi. Tickets to the event, which sold out quickly last year, are on sale now at www.thinkflash.ae, or call 800-FLASH (35274).
RAFA ON ROGER "I am more than happy with my titles, and I think talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid because the titles say he's much better than me, so that's the truth at that moment. I think that will be true all my life."
ROGER ON RAFA "It could get into my mind. I could start thinking, 'I can't play against this guy, his game doesn't suit me'. I could start accepting the fact that I have been losing against him, but that would be a bad thing for me to do."
The Nadal file
BORN: June 3, 1986, Manacor, Majorca, Spain. Still lives in Manacor
FAMILY: Mother Ana Maria Parera, father Sebastian Nadal and younger sister Maria Isabel
FIRST PICKED UP A TENNIS RACKET: When he was three years old; his uncle (and long-term coach) Toni was with him at the time and still is.
IS HE LEFT-HANDED? Only when he plays tennis. Uncle Toni converted him to a left-handed player, making him a more dangerous opponent.
NICKNAMES: The King of Clay, Rafa
BREAKTHROUGH: Came in 2002 when he won his first Association of Tennis Professionals match at just 15, making him only the ninth player to do so before the age of 16 in the open era. At the age of 19 years, one month and 22 days he became the third teenager in the history of the ATP computer rankings to reach the world No. 2 spot. The other two were Boris Becker and Björn Borg.
WHAT'S ALL THE TROPHY BITING ABOUT? Rafa started the biting habit as a teenager and it has now become one of his trademarks. He says he prefers biting trophies to kissing them.
DREAM MATCH: He would love to have played Borg. But he thinks the Swede would have won.