Nothing befits the man like the manner of his victory. Instead of basking in the glow of his pulsating triumph on Wimbledon's Centre Court on Sunday night, Rafael Nadal boarded a plane for Stuttgart yesterday to apologise in person for being unable to turn up to the comparatively minor Mercedes Cup because of a knee injury.
"This was the least I can do," he said, explaining that he carried the knock throughout the All-England Club grass championship. "I'm disappointed I can't play. The calendar is hard on us players. I will now get examined for an exact diagnosis. I have played four, five months without a break. My doctors have said I need a couple of days' rest. I have to recover."
Nadal said it was "impossible" to explain how he felt when he won at Wimbeldon, before having a stab at doing so in his broken English. "I am just very, very happy to win this title, my favourite tournament for me. But win? I never imagined something like this. So I'm very happy."
The Majorcan, 22, dethroned Roger Federer as Wimbledon champion on Sunday in four hours and 48 minutes. His catlike scamper across a Centre Court rooftop was watched by 12.7 million British television viewers. In Spain, three million tuned in to a contest already entered in the annals of titanic sporting battles. "Long live King Nadal!" declared Madrid's AS newspaper on its front page yesterday. El Mundo said Nadal had "opened an new era in tennis", while El Pais cried: "Nadal enters into legend!"
Nadal, the first Spaniard since Manuel Santana in 1966 to lift a Wimbledon trophy, gave Spain its second big sporting victory in a week, following the football team's success at Euro 2008. On the streets, reaction to Nadal's win was proud but rather muted compared to the wild parties that erupted after the football triumph.
When Nadal does arrive home – he was due back last night for a lunchtime reception at Manacor town hall today – there will be no triumphant open-topped bus parade through cheering crowds. Tennis is perceived as an elite sport rather a mass obsession; Nadal a revered individual of humble origins.
His victory dance across the roof to Wimbledon's royal box – where he sweatily embraced Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Princess Letizia – stunned British tennis fans, but his countrymen were less surprised by the mutual affection: Nadal's birthplace is not only a haunt of European package tourists but where the Spanish royal family spends its summers sailing, playing tennis and partying. When Nadal clambered over to the Prince and Princess he was greeting not just his future monarchs but his neighbours and sporting chums. Later, the royal couple went down to his dressing room to congratulate their man before the champions' dinner.
Yesterday, Prince Felipe made it known he was touched by Nadal's gesture. El Pais reported: "The Prince and Princess revealed that they had commented to the Mallorquin [Nadal] that they appreciated very much that he had thought of them at such an emotional moment."
The paper's sports writer, Juan Morenilla, added: "When a Spaniard is doing well in tennis, or basketball, or Formula One, then we follow it. Otherwise, we don't really. But football is an eternal, national passion. We follow it constantly, whether we are winning or losing. If football is 10, tennis is seven."
Nadal, of course, may have something to say about that.