‘An important part of my life is leaving too,’ says emotional Rafael Nadal. ‘I was playing in Australia and I was nervous. It’s not easy in a tournament like this. You’ve got a group of people who are used to winning. I thought this was the perfect place for me to get back to my roots and play the way I know how to play – a little more relaxed, with more emotion.’
Nadal was on court for just three hours before a crowd estimated by the Associated Press to be more than 40,000. When he took the court in an uncharacteristically subdued mood, they booed and whistled. Nadal did not let his play down though, and won 6-1, 7-6(11) 7-5, 7-6(11) at the Australian Open, reaching his first Wimbledon final.
It’s not just about Nadal’s tournament record that speaks to his career at the top. He has taken over as the tournament of choice for players who were once the top players in their sport, with Andy Murray winning this year’s US Open, David Ferrer winning the French Open, Roger Federer winning in 2009 and 2010, and the same men currently vying for the world number one spot in the men’s game – among the favourites are the Spaniard, Dominic Thiem, the Serb, Novak Djokovic, the German, Andy Murray and the Frenchman, Thomas Berdych.
As Nadal’s time on the court nears its end, he knows that the next challenge will be even stiffer and more physically demanding.
‘When I was younger, I played and won more than 20 tournaments a year, but I was a little bit scared of coming back to something a little bit harder and a little bit faster,’ he said in his acceptance speech. ‘I was a little bit scared to come back to this. But here I am, and it feels like the right decision.’
So the next challenge for Nadal is to try to win the greatest tournaments in the game. ‘I feel like I have no choice to try to do that for the next five, six, seven years,’ he says. ‘I have to be focused. I have to be very focused on the matches I play here. And that’s what I’m going to have to try to do.