Tough enough to be at the top

Top guns ... Rafael Nadal with Roger Federer (left). The Spaniard rates Federer very high.-AP Top guns ... Rafael Nadal with Roger Federer (left). The Spaniard rates Federer very high.

Looking ahead, Rafael Nadal says his main objective is to become a better player. However, he is not very optimistic about supplanting Roger Federer at the top. "Right now, I have slim chances of becoming World No. 1 because I have to play against the best player in history," the Spaniard says in an e-mail interview with K. Keerthivasan.

Roger Federer, the World No. 1, fears none except this man from Mallorca, Spain. The great Swiss was forced to bow down to his heroics on the red Parisian clay. Rafael Nadal, the World No. 2 and two-time French Open champion, rarely flinches from a battle. With untiring legs that can retrieve shots almost until eternity and breath-taking strokes, there is a general belief that the 20-year-old Spaniard could be the man to replace the Swiss at the top.

Excerpts from the interview:

Question: Rafael Nadal on the court and off it — what are the similarities and the differences?

Answer: I would like to believe that I am like any 20-year-old. Yes, people close to me say that I play a mature game. I really don't find any differences. I exercise self-control and I rarely get angry. This is seen on court where I usually maintain my cool. Yes, while playing I am very aggressive and all charged up. It really helps me to keep myself motivated and play better all the time.

When you came to Chennai in January 2004, you lost in the first round in singles, but won the doubles title. You are planning to play in Chennai again in 2007. What are your memories and what makes you come back to the city?

In 2004 though I lost in the singles to Thierry Ascione, I managed to win the doubles title with Tommy Robredo. The victory was an important landmark in my career. I was looking forward to playing in Chennai in 2006, but a niggling foot injury forced me to pull out of the tournament. Now I am happy that I will be coming next year. I am looking forward to playing in the 2007 Chennai Open.

The tournament is a great event and the enthusiasm of the crowds is very encouraging. Fans there really enjoy their tennis. The tournament has become very popular in the ATP circuit and the organisers, IMG, are doing a great job by providing excellent facilities to the players. I am keen to start the year on a winning note and gain some valuable points in the ATP rankings. I wish to take my game to the next level.

You seem to have so much energy. What is the secret of your fitness?

I think it is all part of the game. You need to be ready and fit to play. Concentration is also very important and I think I am getting there. I don't really do any special training. My family are kind of strong people. It is true I work hard but nothing really special to develop stronger muscles. I always go with the intention of giving it a hundred percent. I just keep trying to get charged up for the game ahead and stay mentally focused.

Do you think you can defeat Federer on grass? Among the current top 10 players, you have a better record (6-3) against him? What is so special about him?

Federer is a great player on court and an excellent person off it. He's a very complete player. He's got every right shot. For me he is the best player. He is amazing. I have a good relationship with him. I have to play my best, probably 120 per cent and try to hold on as much as I can. It is true that I have played him more on clay and that's to my benefit, but we always have close matches. I don't really know of any secret to beat him. As I say, I give all my best all the time and maybe that's helping me. Yes, I have been lucky to have a good record against him on clay. It's just that we play quite often and all our matches are tough and closely fought. That's what makes the duels interesting.

How much interest do you have in football? There were reports that you met Ronaldinho. Do you play any other sport?

Yes. I've always loved sports. In fact, had it not been for my uncle who insisted on me training hard and concentrating on tennis in my formative years, I would have been playing football like my friends used to do after school. But when I look back, I feel privileged for doing what I loved to do.

I just met Ronaldinho in the hotel lobby and spent some 30 minutes with him and Feliciano Lopez. Everyone knows Ronaldinho is one of the best, if not the best. I like to meet people and sportsmen like them.

Surprisingly, your record against James Blake is not good. You have lost to him in all the three meetings. Is it that both of you have a similar playing style?

Yes, he has got the better of me in our meetings so far. He too plays a good aggressive game. The matches we played were closely fought and it's just that he won the crucial points.

What do you do during the off-season? What are your hobbies?

I love to spend time with my family. I also enjoy watching Formula One. I play football and sometimes, I play golf too.

How do you take criticism? Can you recall your good and bad experiences with the media?

It really doesn't bother me so long as it is positive criticism about my game. Well, I had one of the worst serves in the circuit. Now it's a lot better. Well, it's not one of the best, but it isn't the worst. I'll have to keep practising. I've never been floating high up. Whether I've won or lost, my motto has always been the same: to work everyday so things won't twist the wrong way. It's the only way to achieve something. I always go with the intention of giving it a hundred percent. My opponents know that and that helps me. They see me so determined that they get nervous.

Are you aware that you have attained a cult status in India? The pressure will be more on you than the other players at the Chennai Open.

It is tough. When one becomes World No. 2, you have to work really hard to defend the points and you play with a lot of pressure. The important point is you have to stay mentally focused and play your best game. I have played on the surface before so I am aware of the conditions in Chennai. I hope to start the year on a good note.

You reached the top within a matter of one year. To what would you attribute your phenomenal success?

It feels nice to have such a good record and success so early in my career. But I know this is just the beginning. I have been training very hard and trying to improve daily. I have been working so much. I think I owe it all to my uncle and coach Toni. He was instrumental in shaping my career and getting me this far. In my formative years, it was really hard. He made my training very intense and I guess all of that helped me to be who I am and to have so much self-control.

Are you happy with the way 2006 (five singles titles) has turned out for you? What do you want to achieve in 2007 and beyond?

Looking back, it feels nice to have had such good success. But I know this is just the beginning. This year, I started well. I would've never imagined that at this point of the year I had won five titles and that I lost only once in the first round. I think it's incredible.

I have improved some aspects of my game this year. I think I play more comfortably, and I feel a lot more secure about my serve. This year I was more solid, more tough on the court. I didn't make a lot of mistakes. That's another improvement.

Looking ahead, my main objective is to become a better player and to be happy. Right now, I have slim chances of becoming World No. 1 because I'm at a period where I have to play against the best player in history.

In any other time I would have already been No. 1 because of all the points that I have won. But I would definitely like to become No. 1.