MELBOURNE, January 16 – Rafael Nadal made 2008 his own, but the signs are not good for the Australian Open where he will bid to extend his mastery with a first hardcourt Grand Slam.
The muscular Mallorcan has played only three tour matches since October, when he wrapped up his season early with an injured right knee, and crashed out in last week’s Qatar Open quarters.
Nadal, 22, was also beaten in an exhibition event by the in-form Andy Murray, and will have to play his way into form here.
"There’s no damage to my confidence," he insisted in Doha.
"I knew that the beginning of the season was not going to be easy because, although I have had more rest than other players, I have also had more time outside of competition than others.
"So it is a little bit more difficult to come back fast to my rhythm. I’ll leave here with positive feelings when I go to Australia."
The clay-court king also started slowly last year, winning his first title in April before finally wresting the top ranking from Roger Federer.
Last year’s Australian Open semi-final — which he lost to an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — was his best performance in four visits to Melbourne Park.
However, Nadal won Beijing Olympic gold and also made the US Open semis, suggesting he is not a complete slouch on hard surfaces.
The Spaniard also has something else in his favour: one of the fiercest competitive streaks in modern sport.
This desire can be traced back to his low-key home life in Manacor, Mallorca, where he was born into a family well-versed in sporting success.
Uncle Miguel was the ‘Beast of Barcelona,’ a well-known footballer who was capped 62 times by Spain.
But it was his father Sebastien’s other brother, Toni, who changed Nadal’s life when he first handed him a tennis racquet at the age of just four.
After shedding his two-handed forehand at about nine, the young Nadal quickly rose through the ranks and reached the junior Wimbledon semi-finals at his first attempt in 2002.
‘Rafa’ reached the top 100 in April 2003, making his first ATP final at Umag, and enjoyed his career breakthrough at Sopot a year later.
In 2005 the clay-court livewire began to scythe through the rankings, reaching the top 50 in January and the top 10 three months later.
The first of four consecutive French Open crowns brought him to the number two spot that July — a position which he occupied until last August, when he finally overhauled Federer.
The all-action Nadal was fast garnering a reputation for his feats on clay, and he shattered Guillermo Vilas’ 53-match win streak with 81 straight victories on the surface between April 2005 and May 2007.
Despite ongoing knee injury concerns exacerbated by his physical style of play, the Spaniard upped the tempo last season grabbing seven titles and ending Roger Federer’s five-year Wimbledon reign in an epic final.
The legend is secured, but super-stardom appears at odds with Nadal’s self-effacing personality and unflashy lifestyle.
Eschewing the trappings of fame, Nadal still lives with his parents above the family restaurant in Manacor where the ard
ent Real Madrid fan watches football matches and goes fishing with his childhood friends.
While fiercely protective of his private life Nadal is reportedly dating local beauty Maria Francisca ‘Xisca’ Perello.