THERE are moments when a routine press conference offers a glimpse into the very heart of a champion. The character of Rafael Nadal is normally best represented by his actions on court, by his reactions to adversity. Yet yesterday at his champion’s press conference at Wimbledon, he revealed frankly and clearly how he is energised, even inspired by the demands of top-class tennis.
The revelation came in a question about the demands on Andy Murray as he tries to win his first major in front of a home crowd. “Well, the pressure is tough, but at the same time the support is high,” said Nadal.
“I would prefer to have this pressure than don’t have this pressure. That’s what I can answer this question, no. That’s true play at home in one grand slam is something special.”
The English may be fractured, even mangled. However, the message was clear. Nadal believes that pressure is fuel for champions. It is something he loves, even seeks out.
“It is very special to play at home,” he explained. “But when you go court and see all the crowd supporting you it is something very, very emotional and very special. I would love to have this feeling.”
The 25-year-old Spaniard has, of course, won his 10 majors on foreign fields. He seeks his 11th on the courts at Wimbledon where he has not lost since 2007. His extraordinary run at SW19 since 2006 is two runner-up spots followed by two victories with a tournament missed through injury in 2009. Impressive as this record undoubtedly is, Nadal must still bow ever so slightly before Roger Federer who is bidding to equal Pete Sampras’ record of an astonishing seven Wimbledon wins. Federer is so consistent at Wimbledon that his defeat to Tomas Berdych last year in the quarter-finals should have warranted a stewards’ inquiry.
Federer and Nadal produced a match of unsurpassed grace, fury and intrigue in the final in 2008. The man from Manacor prevailed and he has held the upper-hand in the duel ever since.
However, the Spaniard’s transformation from someone who did not quite fire on grass to two Wimbledon championships has been the result of slower courts and Nadal’s ability to work exhaustively on his failings.
“ I said one thousand times that my dream was always to play well here in Wimbledon. In the beginning of my career everybody talked a lot that with my style of play it was going to be always very difficult for me to play well here.
“But I worked a lot and I put all my best into practice.”
He has arrived at Wimbledon with another French Open on his cv and with some rest and recreation in Majorca in his immediate past. “I’ve played fantastic rounds of golf,” he said. “Best time of my life in Majorca, yeah. I went out for a party with friends. I stay with the family. I spent the weekend with friends, family, relaxing a little bit.”
He went back home because he had been knocked out of the tournament at Queen’s Club early and his competitive experience on grass this year is restricted. Federer and Novak Djokovic, though, have not played a match on grass this season while Murray, the other member of the big four, won Queen’s.
Nadal was diplomatic when addressing the form of his foes. “We are playing well,” said the Spaniard.
He is scheduled to meet Murray in the semi-finals and was full of praise for the Scot’s “fantastic” clay-court season. This, of course, included a defeat to Nadal in the semi-finals of Roland Garros but the world No.1 is genuinely excited at renewing rivalries in a tournament where he has not only been successful but has been indelibly pressed into its history.
He was dismissive about attempts to link him with a chase of Federer’s 16 grand slams but if he stays fit despite the strain he puts on his body he must have a chance of accumulating several more slams. He is invincible at Roland Garros, now highly competitive on hard court and has made a corner of SW19 his personal fiefdom.
“I wake up every day in order to practice with the dream to be a better player than the day before. But being a better player does not mean you are going to win more,” he said, pointing out the difference between victory and defeat at the highest level was down to “small things”.
“I am sure I am a better player,” he said of the Nadal 2011 vintage.
The Spaniard spent the eve of the defence of his Wimbledon title by watching Rory McIlroy’s final round in the US Open. “I love golf. I follow the tour every week,” he said. “I admire Rory a lot.”
So who gives inspiration to Nadal?
“Sport in general is the inspiration,” he said. “Watching sport on the TV or live is something special for me. I love to do it.”
He added: “Just to live one of these moments in my sport, that’s something really exciting for me. I love to play big matches. That’s my inspiration.”