Nadal refuses to dream of a third title
The Spaniard is the man of the moment again going into the All England Club tournament after beating Djokovic three times on clay so far this season, writes Paul Newman
Taking it one match at a time has become a mantra for sportsmen, but nobody is quite as cautious as Rafael Nadal. The 26-year-old Spaniard has just beaten the world No 1 in a final for the third time in a row to claim his seventh French Open, has only three players ahead of him in the list of all-time Grand Slam title winners and has reached the final on his past five appearances at Wimbledon, yet refuses to contemplate the prospect of winning at the All England Club for a third time.
"Thinking about winning another title here in Wimbledon is arrogant and crazy," Nadal said. "That's something I cannot think about. I can just think about practising tomorrow, preparing my game, arriving on Tuesday in the right conditions, being competitive and trying to win my first match."
While Novak Djokovic is the defending champion and retains a healthy lead at the top of the world rankings, Nadal is the man of the moment. It was not the case five months ago. When Nadal lost the Australian Open final it seemed that Djokovic had strengthened his hold over the Spaniard. It was the world No 1's seventh successive victory in finals against Nadal, who became the first man ever to lose three successive Grand Slam finals, each of them against the Serb.
The clay season, however, gave Nadal the chance to regroup. Wins over Djokovic in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals helped put paid to the idea that he might have a complex about facing the world No 1, while victory over him in the French Open final put a seal on another successful clay campaign. No other player has won seven men's singles titles at Rol-and Garros and the Spaniard's 11th Grand Slam title leaves him behind only Roger Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12).
For five years Nadal and Federer dominated the sport, but since the Wimbledon final of 2010 the struggle for supremacy has been between Nadal and Djokovic. Since Federer won the 2010 Australian Open there have been nine Grand Slam tournaments, of which Nadal has won five and Djokovic four.
"When I arrived here on tour, especially when I started to play well, Roger was always there," Nadal said when asked to assess the rivalries. "With Novak, it's little bit the other way. I was there and then he came.
"It's difficult to analyse which rivalry is more important, more attractive, for everybody. The only thing I can say is that we have played a lot of matches against each other in very important circumstances. That happened a lot of times with Roger. We played a lot of Grand Slam finals, a lot of Masters 1000s, competing for very important tournaments in our careers.
"With Novak we have started to have all of this too. It's great. I feel very lucky to be part of these two rivalries. I think it's something that brings special motivation to the game, to the motivation to keep improving my tennis. Because if you are not able to improve your level of tennis, you are dead. Tennis is a very competitive world."
Nadal may be the king of clay, but nobody should underestimate his ability on grass. Federer has won six Wimbledon titles to Nadal's two, but not even the Swiss can match the Spaniard's recent consistency at the All England Club. Nadal has reached the final in his past five visits, winning in 2009 (against Federer) and 2010 (against Tomas Berdych) and losing in 2006 and 2007 (to Federer) and last year (to Djokovic).
The Spaniard believes a key to succeeding on grass is to "play with the surface, not against the surface". He added: "At the same time you cannot change something crazy in your game if what you usually do you are doing well. In the past my best points on grass were when I played very [consistently] with my serve. I probably wasn't serving bombs, because I'm not that kind of player, but I was playing very solid with a high percentage, with enough speed. My movement and my decision-making on this surface have also been good the last couple of years.
"I enjoy playing here. It brings something different. Since the first time I came here when I played the juniors in 2002 or 2001 I have always loved this place. I've always loved this surface. The game here is great to watch – especially if you don't play against a big server."
Nadal lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber, the world No 34, in his warm-up tournament on grass in Halle last week, but at least the quarter-final defeat enabled him to spend more time relaxing at home in Majorca. Besides, he is not concerned about having to raise his game again so soon, having twice completed the French Open-Wimbledon double.
"It's nothing new," he said. "Today is the same as other seasons. What's going to make it a little bit more difficult is later. Normally if you have a very good tournament here you have four or four-and-a-half weeks of rest afterwards. That's not the case this year because of the Olympics."
Nadal is the defending Olympic champion and is looking forward to competing in the Games for a third time. "For all the people who are involved in sport, the Olympics is probably the most special thing that can happen," he said.
"I set one record in Athens as the sportsman who spent the least time at an Olympic Games. The week before I played in Sopot, where I won my first tournament. I arrived on the Saturday night, lost on the Sunday and went home. But in Beijing I was able to spend one week before, then all the tournament there. I enjoyed the experience in the village with friends and with sport colleagues. It was great, probably one of the greatest experiences I ever had."
He added: "Playing at Wimbledon is going to be little bit bigger because of what this place means in the world of tennis. We're going to enjoy playing here another time."
Five men who can surprise the big guns:
MARIN CILIC, CROATIA
Long regarded as a major talent but career has stalled in last two years. Victory at Queen’s last week showed signs of a revival. Big serve, bold ground strokes and sound volleys are all suited to grass. Coached by Bob Brett, who worked with Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic.
MILOS RAONIC, CANADA
Has one of fastest serves in the game and went close to beating Roger Federer on grass in Halle earlier this month before losing final set tie-break. Has beaten Andy Murray this year and won titles in San Jose and Chennai. Retired hurt in second round on Wimbledon debut last year.
BERNARD TOMIC, AUSTRALIA
Could make a major impact provided he is fit after recent illness following French Open. Hugely talented ball striker with all-court game that can serve him well on grass. Reached quarter-finals last year before losing to Novak Djokovic. Former world junior No 1.
TOMMY HAAS, GERMANY
Former world No 2’s career has been dogged by injury but he beat Roger Federer in final on grass at Halle last weekend, his first win over the Swiss for 10 years. His previous title was also won in Halle three years ago − when he went on to reach Wimbledon semi-finals.
NICOLAS MAHUT, FRANCE
Likes to play serve-and-volley and loves grass. Has never gone beyond third round at Wimbledon but beat Andy Murray at Queen’s and is playing some of best tennis of his career. Best known for record 11-hour Wimbledon marathon against John Isner two years ago.
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