• Image about Rafael Nadal


Q: Just who is Rafael Nadal?
A: Not your typical tennis pro, that’s for sure.


PHOTOGRAPH BY NIGEL PARRY

WIMBLEDON IS SUPPOSED TO BE
a two-week garden party that doubles as a sporting event. Tennis players clad in all white compete on courts covered with grass in a quiet London suburb. Fans dressed in their Sunday best look on and clap politely, eating strawberries and cream. The female officials wear long skirts; the men wear blazers. Tradition and ritual seep from every pore. The Championships, as the tournament immodestly refers to itself, appear to be pulled from some Victorian-era time warp.

Then there is Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard shelves his neon-colored attire and conforms to the all-white dress code. With biceps flexing and sweaty hair matted to his contorted face, he bolts around the court, grunting when he smacks the ball. Afterward, he forgoes the courtesy cars and walks back to an apartment he rents not far from the tournament grounds at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. He is the roughneck crashing the debutante ball, the guy in the T-shirt at the black-tie affair.

Yet when Wimbledon begins later this month, Nadal will arrive as the toast of the tournament. In keeping with, yes, tradition, he’ll play the first match on vaunted Centre Court on the afternoon of June 22. With that, the hottest player in men’s tennis will begin his title defense. And he can’t wait. “To win the Wimbledon title is clearly something special,” he says. “Wimbledon is tradition -- that’s how we perceive it. But in the end, a tennis court is a tennis court.”

Nadal’s return to Wimbledon will mark the one-year anniversary of what’s come to be regarded as the greatest tennis match ever played. In the 2008 men’s final, Nadal faced his rival, Roger Federer, then the five-time defending Wimbledon champ, in a breathtaking match that lasted nearly five hours. Nadal won the first two sets; Federer won the next two. “I thought to myself that if I’d managed to win the first two, I could win the fifth,” Nadal recalls. “I could have lost that opportunity, and you never know if I would have it again.”