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High-spirited Nadal hangs out with fans

Rafael Nadal practises ahead of his first round match.
by Courtney Nguyen
Saturday 23 June 2012

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Rafael Nadal arrived at the All England Club having captured his sixth Roland Garros, tying Bjorn Borg's record-setting mark in Paris. Bathed in the glow of victory, there still remained the slight issue of one Novak Djokovic. By this time last year, Nadal had not beaten the Serb in four attempts and by the end of the Fortnight, that losing streak would extend to five, as Djokovic captured his first Wimbledon title with a 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory in the final. Conventional wisdom said Djokovic had firmly lodged himself in the Spaniard's mind, and that would remain true for the rest of the year, as Nadal would lose yet another Slam final in New York.

Fast forward a year and Nadal has righted his wayward ship. After a tight loss to Djokovic earlier in the year at the Australian Open -- a match that lasted almost six hours and left both men barely able to stand upright through the award ceremony -- Nadal walked away feeling like he had made progress, having closed the gap by playing more aggressively. Buoyed by that confidence, he finally snapped his seven-match losing streak at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters in April and built on his form from there. It all culminated in his record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title two weeks ago, where he beat the Serb in a rain-addled final that was completed over two days. As he fell to his beloved clay after match point, Rafa let loose an emotional celebration that was equal parts relief and exultation. In a Google+ Hangout web chat with fans and journalists on Friday, a relaxed Rafa said the outpouring of emotion was a natural release of near-crippling tension.

"Was a very emotional victory because first of all, I think I played five Grand Slam finals in a row but the last three I lost," Nadal said from the living room of the house he is staying at during Wimbledon. "I remember that morning before that match, before coming back on court with 2-1 in the fourth, I almost couldn't breathe. I was so so nervous during all the morning. A lot of tension in my body."

So what's changed a year on? Rafa, always the philosopher, reflected on his year and admitted that as much as it has been about tactics, it's also about timing.

"It's a little bit of everything, no? As always I say you have periods in your career that you playing better, you are playing worse, your opponent is playing fantastic. And last year, in my opinion, Novak had an amazing season. He's having an amazing season this year too. But it seems last year his level of tennis was just unbelievable, no? And I think I played well.

"Probably I didn't play as solid as I did in the past, talking about the mental part. But in general I was very happy with the season of last year, but just remained a few things. I think I played not very aggressive against him and that's why he was able to have control of the point against me almost in every moment. Probably this year I am trying to play a little bit more aggressive and that's why probably I have more opportunities than before against him."

Now armed with a head-heavier racket that he says gives him more power, Nadal's aggression could pay huge dividends as he begins his Wimbledon campaign. Thanks to his dominant clay season, the two-time Wimbledon champion can retake the No. 1 ranking he lost to Djokovic here last year if he wins the title and Djokovic does not progress past the quarter-finals. It's a tremendous opportunity for the Spaniard to put a tidy end on one chapter of his career, and begin writing the next.

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