Power games: can Nadal seize his rival's crown?

As Federer falls in rankings, the World No 1 senses a chance to claim elusive US Open title
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The Independent Online

The guests at the Wimbledon Champions' Dinner in London on Sunday night had already finished their rare sirloin of beef and were well into the golden supreme of south coast halibut by the time the star of the show appeared.

It was just as well that Rafael Nadal had found time earlier in the evening, between a succession of post-match interviews, to wolf down a pizza margherita with mushrooms in the All England Club's media centre. A man of simple pleasures, the 24-year-old Spaniard had also favoured a choc ice over the champagne that was on offer in the locker room immediately after his victory over Tomas Berdych.

The bad news for Nadal's rivals, however, is that the world No 1 is still hungry, his appetite for success undiminished by his second triumph at what he calls his "favourite tournament in the world". His Wimbledon victory on Sunday was his 41st senior title and his eighth at Grand Slam level.

"I want to learn, to improve," Nadal said as he looked to the future. "The important thing is to work like I have all my life. Winning or losing can be decided by very small things, but you have to make opportunities for yourself."

Nadal's future always has to be hedged with provisos about his troublesome knees – he will take advantage of the break before his next tournament in Toronto in a month's time to undergo further treatment – but if he maintains his current rate of progress he will rewrite the record books. The Majorcan has won his eighth Grand Slam title at the age of 24 and one month; Roger Federer, who holds the record of 16 Grand Slam victories, won his eighth (at Wimbledon in 2006) when he was 24 and 11 months. But this year finds Federer markedly less than invincible – yesterday he fell in the rankings to world No 3 – outside the top two for the first time in seven years.

Historically, Federer may have held the advantage in his ability to excel on any surface, even if Nadal's brilliance on clay meant the Swiss did not complete his collection of Grand Slam titles until he finally won the French Open last year. Nadal has now won two grass-court Grand Slam titles and five on clay, but last year's Australian Open triumph remains his only success at that level on hard courts.

He has become known as the king of clay, though Nadal insists he has never seen himself like that. "When I was a kid I didn't feel like a clay-court specialist," he said. "I practised on hard courts and clay and I didn't play better on one or the other. On grass, the most important thing for me is to want to play well. If you want to play well and you're a good player, you will find a way to do it."

While Nadal has won nine titles on hard courts he has yet to reach a US Open final. Giving so much in the clay- and grass-court seasons has clearly affected his late-summer New York campaigns in the past: on the three previous occasions that he made the finals at both Paris and Wimbledon (2006, 2007 and 2008) he went out of the US Open in the quarter-finals, fourth round and semi-finals respectively.

Is there reason to believe he will do better this year? "It is very difficult," Nadal admitted. "I hope to be ready, to be healthy, because for the last few years I've had problems. Last year, I had abdominal trouble. Two years ago, I arrived at the semi-finals against Andy Murray totally exhausted, mentally and physically, after the Olympics and winning here at Wimbledon.

"This year things might be a bit different. Now the most important thing for me is to rest in Majorca, to enjoy the summer there and then have three weeks' practice at home, like a mini pre-season.

"I will try to work as I did in December, which was very good for me. I started the season playing my best tennis, though I didn't win because I wasn't calm enough or confident enough, even though my level was high enough to do it."

Yesterday's updated world rankings list provided confirmation of the gulf between Nadal and the rest. He is nearly 4,000 points ahead of his closest rival (2,000 points are awarded for triumph in a Grand Slam event) and already he looks certain to stay at the top for the rest of the year.

"It was never a big goal to be No 1," the Spaniard said. "To finish the season as No 1? Yes. That is a bit more of a goal. I am in a good position to do that. But what makes me happy is not being No 1, it is working hard."

As for other career targets, Nadal was typically modest. How many more Grand Slam titles did he think he could win? "I don't know. Maybe I won't win any more."

How much would breaking records mean to him? "It is important, but I am focused on improving my tennis. I am 24 years old and it is very difficult to say now where I want to be. It is very difficult to predict."

As for how long he expected to carry on playing, he was clear on one point. "If I wake up one day and I go to practise without any motivation to improve, then I will stop."

He added: "I love the competition, sport in general. I love to practise. You try your best in every moment. When I go to play golf I try to do my best. When I have a football match with friends and we play five-a-side I don't understand why not everyone is running. I don't understand sport like this. When I go to play I enjoy running, finishing the match tired after giving everything.

"It may just be a fun match with friends, but that's what I understand sport is about."

New world order: how the heavyweights emerge from wimbledon

Novak Djokovic: Now world No 2

The Serb may not have won another Grand Slam title since his 2008 Australian Open triumph but he has become a highly consistent performer. The 23-year-old moved up one place to No 2 in yesterday's updated world ranking list. In the last eight Grand Slam events, Djokovic has failed to reach the quarter-finals only once, while in making the semi-finals at Wimbledon he matched his best performance at the All England Club. Nevertheless, he will be disappointed to have lost to lower-ranked opponents – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Jürgen Melzer and Tomas Berdych – at each of this year's Grand Slam tournaments. Hard courts usually bring the best out of Djokovic and he needs a good second half of the season to maintain his place. He has plenty of ranking points to defend in America over the next two months.

Andy Murray: World No 4

The Briton is yet to win a title this year, but his run to the semi-finals at Wimbledon suggested he has played himself out of the early-season dip that followed his excellent Australian Open campaign. In losing to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals last week, Murray gave the Spaniard a better run for his money than Tomas Berdych did in the final. Although he did not make much of an impression at Indian Wells and Miami earlier this year, Murray usually performs well on American hard courts. He won the US Open junior title in 2004 and reached his first senior Grand Slam final in New York two summers ago. Nevertheless, he will need to avoid another post-Grand Slam slump. His next tournament will be in Toronto, where he will be defending the ranking points he earned by winning the title in Montreal last summer.

Roger Federer: World No 3

One Grand Slam title and appearances in the quarter-finals of the two other majors would be an excellent haul for anyone else, but by his standards Federer has not had a great year. He has not won a title since the Australian Open and his run of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-final appearances ended at the French Open. Yesterday, the Swiss fell out of the top two places in the world rankings for the first time since 2003. Having won last summer's Cincinnati Masters and reached the final of the US Open, he will drop further down the list if his indifferent form continues into the US hard-court season. Federer said injury problems were partly to blame for his Wimbledon form. He will welcome the chance to recuperate over the next four weeks, but his recent run casts doubts over whether he maintains his motivation.

And the rest...

The injuries suffered by Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko have left Robin Soderling (left) as the closest challenger to the big four. The Swede yesterday moved up to a career-high No 5 in the rankings and is breathing down Murray's neck. Tomas Berdych, a semi-finalist at the French Open and finalist at Wimbledon, has been the other significant mover this summer. Up to No 8 in the rankings, he now has to prove the last six weeks are evidence of a long-term improvement. Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic and Fernando Verdasco had Wimbledons they will want to forget, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has never rediscovered the level that took him to the 2008 Australian Open final. Of the others just below the top, Sam Querrey and John Isner will hope home advantage will help them on US hard courts.