Amountain still remains a challenge, even when it's made of clay. So, in that meticulous, calculating way of his, Rafael Nadal has worked his way through the foothills of Monte Carlo, Barce-lona, Rome and Hamburg, honing his game at those tournaments in successive weeks in readiness for the assault onthe peak of the clay-court game, the French Open, starting next Sunday.
Nadal, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday in the second week of Roland Garros, has never lost a match there; 21 played in three years of competition, and 21 won. Now the Spanish superman is readying himself to tilt at matching the record of Bjorn Borg: four successive French Opens between 1978-81.
Actually, Borg won Roland Garros six times in eight years from 1974 but, by the end of 1981, the year he also lost the Wimbledon title he had owned for five years, Borg had gone from the game, burnt out at 26. That, plus last Wednesday's disturbing news that, at 25, Justine Henin has had enough, offers Nadal food for thought, if not pause for thought.
There is no room for pause in the treadmill life of the dancing master of clay, with his sleeveless shirts, toreador trousers and vivid headbands. This season, for the first time, Rafa has been complaining, loud and long, about what the scheduling of events by the Association of Tennis Professionals is doing to the tour pros, but especially to him, the bloke who usually tends to be around until the end of all the clay tournaments.
Not that any of this talk will deflect Nadal in the slightest as he prepares this week, first at home in Majorca and then, from Thursday, on the clay of Paris, to try to put the bite on that treasured symbol of mastery in this particular Grand Slam, the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Biting the cups that he wins – rather than kissing them – is Rafa's trademark manner of celebration. Should that happen for the fourth straight time, there will not be time to sink his teeth into the ATP again before he is off to London to prepare for Wimbledon by competing, as the top seed,in the Artois Championships at Queen's Club.
For the past two summers, Nadal has gone from a Roland Garros triumph to near-success at Wimbledon, finishing runner-up to Roger Federer. So, then, Rafa, which of these Grand Slams would you rather collect if you could only have one? "Whichever one would delight me," he said in a rare quiet moment during his hectic week at Barcelona's Real Club de Tenis. "But if you asked me to write down on a piece of paper which one, it would have to be Wimbledon, because I've already won three times in Paris. I want to win a Grand Slam on grass because it is a very special surface, so different to all the others. Not many players from Spain have done well there, so that is extra motivation for me."
In fact, there is just one, Manolo Santana, in 1966. Santana also won Roland Garros twice and the US title (on grass in those days) once, a record which has ensured his place at the summit of Spain's list of tennis heroes for many years. Now Nadal's playing compatriots are lining up to proclaim him Spain's best ever. Here's his Davis Cup team mate, David Ferrer: "Rafa is the best Spanish player in history and he's only 21. He can play [on clay] in his sleep." Federer, missing only the French title from what would be a complete set of Grand Slams, knows what he is up against in his pursuit. "For Rafa, nothing is impossible on clay; he is extraordinary."
While Nadal would not dispute that opinion, he is realistic about his place in the world of tennis. "I am the best number two in history but I have never been number one," he says.
"For me the most important thing is feeling well, playing well. My goal is simple, to be among the top players. I have been number two for three years, which I think is unbelievable because there have been people ranked number one in the world who had less points than me. So I just have to try and keep playing at the same level as I have done for the past three years. But, for me, being number one is not an obsession. You are number one or you are not. That's the way I feel about it."
In fact, again revealing that calculation and caution, Nadal fears he may soon fall behind fast-rising Serb Novak Djokovic, who ran him close in yesterday's Hamburg semi-final: "I know I am going to lose number two in the world. I don't know if it is going to be after Roland Garros or Wimbledon, but I know it's going to happen." Nadal also dismisses the current speculation that Federer is in decline this year following his viral problems. "Roger has set such high standards for so long. Do you realise how difficult it is to play for so many years and only lose three or four matches in the whole year? His record in 2008 is not so bad. He has won one [Estoril] and been in finals and semi-finals. And it's not only a question of titles, it's the way Roger wins. You have to be so strong mentally. That's what he has been for the last years and that's what he still is."
While Nadal prides himself on being mentally buttoned down when the Grand Slams come around, he insists: "I never think about Roland Garros until I get there, this year especially. I just haven't had enough time to be thinking about that." One reason is his preoccupation with injuries that have been an inevitable consequence of his all-action style. After winning Monte Carlo (both singles and doubles) and Barcelona, Nadal lost his first match in Rome, handicapped by a badly blistered right foot. Those close to him explain that the problem was caused by favouring that foot to protect his left one, which has chronic problems. Though he plays in specially designed shoes, Nadal always feels some pain when he runs.
"Rafa will go into Roland Garros not 100 per cent fit because of those blisters," said Neus Yerro, the tennis correspondent of the Barcelona daily Sport. "So his problem is mainly physical, but there is also a mental distraction because of the ongoing Davis Cup row." Nadal and the rest of Spain's Davis Cup team, including the non-playing captain, Emilio Sanchez, are involved in a bitter dispute with the Spanish Tennis Federation president, Pedro Munoz, who is accused of having "a dictatorialand manipulative attitude". Their spat means September's semi-final against the United States may not go ahead.
There is one piece of good medical news for Nadal. The tendinitis in his serving shoulder which flared during the Barcelona event has cleared up, according to Angel Ruiz Cot-orro, the doctor who treats most of the Spanish players.
So, then, Nadal remains the opponent to respect, and fear, for the rest of the French Open field. And there is at the moment no sign that Nadal may soon follow Henin out of tennis. As Yerro says: "He will go on as long as he doesn't suffer a serious injurybecause he still has a lot of things to do. He wants to win more Davis Cups than anyone, wants to win Wimbledon and the other Slams, and of course he wants to be number one in the world, though he would never say that."
Life and times
Born: 3 June 1986, Manacor, Majorca, where he still lives.
Family: parents Sebastien and Anna Maria, sister Maria Isabel (17); one uncle, Toni, is his coach and another, Miguel Angel, the former Barcelona and Spain footballer, is his fitness trainer.
Rankings: 2nd, ATP 2008 race; 2nd, ATP Entry.
Grand Slams: French Open winner 2005, '06, '07; Wimbledon finalist '06, '07. Australian Open semi-finalist '08. US Open quarter-finalist '06.
Other ATP titles: 22.
Favourite pastimes: fishing; supports Real Madrid.