It is a glorious summer's evening in Aorangi Park. Wimbledon's practice courts are a hive of activity as the world's best tennis players go through the annual ritual of rediscovering the feel of grass beneath their feet.
The All England Club's "predominantly white'' dress rules do not apply here and the players are kitted out in anything from garish green and yellow tops to blue t-shirts and black track suits. On Court 5, however, one man is dressed in immaculate all-white, from his socks to his back-to-front baseball cap.
Other clues give away his identity. There is an intensity to his training match against Britain's Jamie Baker – a running forehand dumped into the net is greeted with the same look of frustration that you would imagine if he were playing in the final on Centre Court – and this is the only practice session where a handful of spectators have gathered. They are here because the man in white is Rafael Nadal. After his injury problems of last year, the 24-year-old Spaniard is back at Wimbledon for the first time since his victory in the 2008 final over Roger Federer in arguably the greatest match ever.
The fact that the most flamboyant and charismatic player in tennis has dressed so soberly tells you much about both the man and the respect he has for what he calls "the nicest club in the world''. An hour later, showered and refreshed, he sits back in a chair in a deserted room at the All England Club and explains his affection for this most traditional of tournaments, in which he suffered successive final defeats by Federer before tasting ultimate glory two years ago.
"I love everything about it,'' Nadal said. "The grass gives something special to the tournament. When you walk around it's different to other places. My goal was always to play well here on grass. I did that in 2006, playing in the final for the first time. That was a big surprise for me. To do it another time the next year made me think: 'I can really play well here.' When I won in 2008, it was one of the most emotional moments of my career, if not the most emotional.
"For me it was a dream to win here – more than a dream. Spanish players in the past saw Wimbledon as something that was impossible to win, a different sport. But I always had my dream of doing well on this surface. I love it. I loved this place – just being here and seeing everything – from the first time I came here to play juniors.''
Another big part of Wimbledon's appeal for many of the players is that its location means that they stay in local rented accommodation. Nadal is sharing a house close with his uncle and coach, Toni, and his physical trainer, Rafael Maymo.
"It's good,'' Nadal said. "You stop for practice, you walk home, I walk back to practice. It's different from normal weeks when you are in a hotel. It feels more like you are at home. I walk to the courts every day."
Who does the cooking?
"I cook every day. We haven't had a chance yet to do some shopping, but we're going to the supermarket tomorrow.''
And his favourite food? "I love seafood – but to eat rather than to cook. To cook? I like making pasta. I wouldn't say that I'm a good cook, just pretty normal. I like to cook. It's usually me or my physio who do it.''
Is the food they prepare better than what is on offer in the players' lounge? "Yes, for sure. It's difficult at Grand Slam tournaments, there are so many players. I understand it's difficult. That's one of the things that could improve. Not only here – in Australia, in France, everywhere.''
Does Uncle Toni ever do the cooking? "Never.'' Does he do the washing-up? "Sometimes,'' Nadal laughs.
What about back home in Majorca? Does the world No 1 ever do the cooking there? Nadal sounds surprised at the very suggestion. "No. At home I normally arrive home from practice at 1.30 or 2pm – and my Mum cooks much better than me.''
Nadal still lives with his family in the Majorcan town of Manacor and goes home at every opportunity. Between losing at Queen's Club last Friday and arriving at Wimbledon on Wednesday he spent four days there. "I had a very good time,'' he said. "I played golf on two days, I went to a party on Saturday night with some friends, I stayed with my family, I went to the beach.
"I go back to Majorca and I have a completely normal life. I'm at home and I have all my family there, my friends. When I go to practice in the morning there are normally some tourists or some local people watching, but for the rest of the day life is completely normal. There's nobody taking pictures, no tourists, nothing.
"For me the perfect summer holiday is being at home with my family and seeing all my friends. When I finish this tournament I'll go there. This last weekend was a bit of a holiday for me, but I was practising on Monday and Tuesday for two hours and afterwards I did some physical work. I have to try my best to win this tournament. Then I can rest a little bit after that.''
Home is also where Nadal keeps his trophies. Picking up his wallet, Blackberry, mobile phone and – to this interviewer's consternation – the recorder taping our conversation, he explained the lay-out of the family apartment, which is in a large building shared with other relatives.
"On one floor there is my room, my sister's room and my parents' room, and there is another room with a sofa and a big TV. My Wimbledon trophy is in there. I also have my five Roland Garros trophies in there. The Wimbledon trophy is in the middle. I also have five Romes, my six Monte Carlos and my five Barcelonas. I have my Wimbledon trophy on top of my TV.''
Does he clean the trophies? "My Wimbledon trophy is in perfect condition. The Roland Garros trophies, after a year, two years, they go dark and you have to polish them. The Wimbledon one, it's perfect.''
Missing Wimbledon last year with a knee problem, at the same time as his parents were going through marital difficulties, was the lowest point of a troubled 2009. The only match Nadal watched in full on television during Wimbledon was the final. "It wasn't an easy moment for me, with the knees, with a little bit the problems at home too,'' he said.
Further injuries contributed to a slump in form that saw Nadal go 11 months without winning a tournament and eventually drop to No 4 in the world rankings. He qualified for the World Tour Finals in London in November, only to lose all three of his matches in straight sets. "I had accepted before the tournament that I didn't have any chance there because I wasn't ready,'' he said.
From that point Nadal decided to "start from zero'' with his practice for the new season. He began training again within a day of leading Spain to victory in the Davis Cup final at the start of December and "after two weeks I was feeling great''.
By the time he reached the final of his first tournament of the year in Doha – he lost to Nikolay Davydenko despite winning a first set in which he played "probably one of the best sets of my career'' – the Spaniard believed he was back on track, even if disappointment followed at the Australian Open, where another knee injury forced his retirement against Andy Murray when two sets and 3-0 down in their quarter-final.
"I don't know if I would have won against Andy in that match because he was playing amazingly,'' Nadal said. "I was happy because I was playing one of the best players in the world. My feeling was that he was playing very well, but I had some good chances. I was a break up in both sets.''
Nadal believes Murray's subsequent defeat to Federer in the final may have contributed to the Scot's indifferent performances in the following months, which have been in strict contrast to Nadal's all-conquering form through the recent clay-court season.
"Sometimes it's not easy to accept losing the final of a Grand Slam,'' he said. "Even I thought that Andy was going to win in Australia. But Roger played very well. Mentally that could have been difficult, but Andy has amazing talent and he's a great competitor. He's an amazing player, so he can win here.''
As for Federer, Nadal rejected any suggestion that he and the Swiss should be regarded as joint defending champions at Wimbledon given that the Spaniard beat him in his last match here. "Roger is the defending champion. I didn't play last year. Roger's always the defending champion here. He's won six times already. That's really unbelievable. And seven finals in a row. Amazing.''
Nadal has never viewed the 2008 final again from start to finish, but he has watched the highlights several times. Seeing his performance gives him encouragement that he can scale those heights again.
"It was amazing,'' he said. "There were a lot of very good points, a lot of very good rallies, amazing shots from both of us. When you see that you think: 'I can do it another time. I can play at this level on grass.' But to play at this level you need to win a lot of matches before and you need to arrive at that moment with big confidence. I have the confidence, but I need to adapt better to this surface. I need to play and win matches.''
The $535,000 [£361,000] watch Nadal is wearing as part of his sponsorship deal with the Swiss manufacturers Richard Mille – it ticks so loudly that you can hear it during our conversation – indicates it is time to leave the All England Club and head for home. He is a big football fan and there is a World Cup match on TV.
Nadal is not unduly concerned by Spain's opening defeat against Switzerland ("We had control of the match all of the time and we will make the next round''), but the fact that it was at the hands of his greatest rival's national team has not escaped his notice. Has he discussed the match with Federer? "I haven't seen Roger yet,'' Nadal says with a smile. "I don't want to see him.''
There will be time for that. As Nadal leaves to walk alone up the hill towards his rented house – it is hard to imagine many other sportsmen of similar stature making the same journey – you can easily picture him making the return journey in a fortnight's time to face Federer in the final.Reuse content