Nadal: I'm not obsessed with beating Djokovic
The Spaniard has suffered at the hands of the world No 1 this season but he still believes in himself
Rafael Nadal goes into next week's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London as world No 2 and French Open champion, having banked prizemoney of $6.4m (£4m) this year, not counting his appearance fees and endorsements.
Next month he has the chance to finish his year by leading Spain to glory on home soil in the Davis Cup final against Argentina.
Asking Nadal at the O2 Arena yesterday whether he felt like the forgotten man of tennis might therefore have seemed absurd, but there is no escaping the fact that the 25-year-old Spaniard's star has waned. Twelve months ago he lost to Roger Federer in the final here at the end of a momentous season in which he won three Grand Slam titles and became only the seventh man in history to win all four of the sport's greatest prizes.
When the season-ending finale gets under way tomorrow, however, Nadal will be the least fancied of the sport's fab four. Federer and Andy Murray, who have won five tournaments between them since the US Open, are the favourites, while Novak Djokovic, despite his recent physical struggles, has been the season's outstanding player.
Nadal, who skipped last week's Paris Masters after a lacklustre showing in the Asia swing, has had a lean year by his own standards. His haul of three titles (French Open, Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open) is his smallest since his breakthrough season in 2004, which was also the last campaign in which he won titles only on clay. He has not won a tournament for five months and, after averaging three Masters Series titles per year for the last six seasons, has won only one in 2011.
So does he feel like the forgotten man? "Maybe you have this feeling, but I don't," Nadal said. "I played in the final of the last three Grand Slams and I've had a good season. I lost a few important matches this season, but I won a few ones too. I'm happy about my year. I didn't have a perfect year, but I've had a very good year. I've been out of competition for a little while and that's probably why the focus is on others."
The reason for Nadal's comparative lack of success is not so much "others" as one man: Djokovic. Until this year Nadal had beaten the Serb in 16 of their 23 meetings and had never lost to him in 11 matches on clay or grass. Djokovic's only successes had come on hard courts, but even on his least favourite surface the Spaniard had won their last two matches, at last year's US Open and World Tour Finals.
Everything changed this year. The two men have met six times in six finals – on clay, hard courts and grass – and Djokovic has won them all. A year ago Nadal had an exceptional record in finals – 43 wins and only 12 losses – but he has now lost eight of his last 11.
Nadal said that Djokovic had played "probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw". However, when asked whether he had talked to Toni, his uncle and coach, about what he needed to do to turn around his record against the Serb, Nadal insisted: "I'm not working every day thinking about Novak. I'm working and thinking about what I need to do to keep improving, to be a better player. That's what I've done all my career and what I want to keep doing.
"Novak had an unbelievable season. What he did is very difficult to repeat. His level of tennis was very, very high. He beat me and he was playing better than me. That's why he was able to win almost every match during the season.
"I can talk with Toni, I can talk with a lot of people, but at the end of the day what I have to do is work hard to keep improving. If I improve, he's not going to be at this level all his career and the rest of the players will have chances. So Djokovic is not a goal for me. A goal is to be a better player than I was last year. Later we will see if that's enough."
He added: "For me the important thing is to keep improving the one or two things that I think I lost a little bit in moments this year. I need to come back, to have a bit more rhythm in my legs, to play well longer than I did this year. I was able to play very well, but sometimes I played a bit more up and down during matches than in other seasons. And at times my serve did not work well enough."
Nadal said that losing his world No1 ranking to Djokovic hurt much less than being beaten by him in six finals. "I'm happy being No 2," he said. "What makes me feel happy is being competitive against everybody and, when I am travelling to a tournament, feeling ready to win it and to have good chances against everybody."
As for his own chances here, Nadal acknowledges that playing indoors on a hard court will favour his main rivals. "Roger is winning and Andy had a very good season in Asia, winning three tournaments," Nadal said. "He lost a tough match against Berdych in Paris, but he's doing really well. And Djokovic must have unbelievable confidence."
Nadal said it had been important for him to take a recent break as he will be going straight into his off-season training camp after the Davis Cup final in a fortnight's time. The break also gave him a chance to live up to the promise he had made to go to Disneyland Paris.
"I went with all my family, all my cousins," he said. "There were 20 of us. I invited them a year and a half ago, but I didn't have the chance to go there because of the calendar. But I felt that was the right moment and it was very, very positive. I watched all my small cousins enjoying it a lot there and that made me happy."
Rafa: In Numbers
50: Percentage of matches Nadal has won at the ATP World Tour Finals, compared with 83% of games across his career
2010: The only previous year Nadal reached the ATP World Tour final – losing to Roger Federer 6-3, 3-6, 6-1
20: Career finals lost by Nadal – six coming against Federer
7: Finals Nadal has lost this year (of 10), including six to Novak Djokovic
Finals: Order of play
Tomorrow: 12.15: D Nestor (Canada) and M Mirnyi (Belarus) v R Bopanna (India) and A Qureshi (Pakistan).
Not before 14.00: R Federer (Switzerland) v J-W Tsonga (France).
18.15: M Llodra (France) and N Zimonjic (Serbia) v M Fyrstenberg and M Matkowski (Poland).
Not before 20.00: R Nadal (Spain) v M Fish (US).
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