Pirate Nadal in jaunty mood as he sets out on voyage of discovery

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The Independent Online

The good news for his growing army of fans is that Rafael Nadal will be wearing his fashion-setting uniform of pirata trousers and sleeveless shirt at Wimbledon. "But in white," he smiled. What is less certain is whether, should he win Wimbledon in the same all-out style he stormed to victory with at the French Open, he will be able to make his acceptance speech in English.

The young master is certainly trying. Indeed, he welcomes questions in English, though there is the occasional need to turn towards his ATP interpreter, Benito Perez Barbadillo, with raised eyebrows and a "Que?" when the questions come in too fast or in obtuse form.

The kid from Mallorca who celebrated his 18th birthday by walloping Roger Federer in the Roland Garros semi-finals a fortnight ago needs no assistance in assessing his chances of a repeat on grass against the world No 1 and winner of Wimbledon for the past two summers. "In Paris, Federer was not at his best, so I could beat him. On hard courts in Miami I also played a good match against him [Nadal lost the final in five sets]. But here he has won for two years, so..." The shrug which followed was a clear indication of what he thought of his chances of overturning Federer in his own back yard.

But Nadal didn't get where he is today - third in the world rankings - by being short of confidence. "I am in the top five now, and at some moment I could be two. But one, no. Federer is the best right now."

What has happened to him this year is still difficult to take on board. "Six months ago I ranked 56, now I am three, close to two. Is unbelievable. But I can still improve." And is he enjoying the attendant fame? "Yes, perfectly."

Having spent virtually all of the season so far on clay, winning six titles on that surface, Nadal is naturally finding the change to grass a demanding task. He claims: "It is not easy to adapt, but I am working. I improve every day." He is better certainly than in Halle last week, where he lost his first match after an impressive sequence of 24 wins to the German wildcard Alexander Waske, a defeat received with relief by his entourage since it offered their lad the opportunity for a much-needed break from his draining, all-action style.

As for his Wimbledon chances, Nadal had this to say: "On clay I can win a lot of matches, but this is different. I am not prepared yet to play a good tournament. I don't know what round I can reach. I only think about the first round right now."

So why come to Wimbledon? "I need to prove myself, improve my volley. I want to play good here because it is one of the best tournaments in the world, and for me to play good here is very nice. For a Spanish player to win the French Open is not unusual, but to win here would be unbelievable. This is the Grand Slam I want to win most because it is so special. I like very nice to play on grass, the green, but I think if the rival serves very well it is not so nice."

The fifth seed, Marat Safin, revealed yesterday that he has defied doctors' orders to play at Wimbledon. A knee injury is causing worry and he will need a check-up after every match since, he says, "the ligaments could snap at any time unless I rest". He will take a month off after Wimbledon.

After losing in the first round last year, Safin threatened never to play at Wimbledon again, but the Russian has clearly had a change of mind since then, despite the injury.

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