Up close and personal, Rafael Nadal seems smaller than you might imagine, quieter, more humble, but less intimidating in a high school quarterback, big man on campus kind of way.
There is little about him that screams best in the world as he seems just slightly lost sitting in the large, comfortable chair in the interview room at the Rexall Centre, trying hard to say in English what doesn't quite come naturally to him.
He doesn't have to talk a good game. He plays one. But his persona off the court seems nothing at all like the look-at-me, look-at-my-biceps, I'm-now-best-in-the-world manner in which he parades himself on the tennis court. In truth, there is a certain attractiveness to both sides of Nadal, the striking athletic figure and the polite, modest, not ready to accept his mantle personality.
The next few weeks should be a fascinating study.
Here is Nadal in Toronto, after winning Wimbledon, still ranked as the No. 2 player in the world. And here is Nadal, heading to the Olympics in Beijing, where he doesn't share the opinion of Roger Federer that a gold medal is on a similar plane with a Grand Slam victory. And there is the U.S. Open after that.
Three more opportunities for Nadal to flex his chest and kick sand in Federer's face. All of this on Federer's beloved hard courts. All of it determined to provide some kind of definition of this tennis year by the beginning of September.
Some players, louder, more outwardly gritty, less respectful, would already be flaunting their place in the world. But Federer, the more accomplished player, remains first in the world. Nadal has beaten him in the finals of Wimbledon and the French Opens. When asked yesterday if he should be considered the man to beat in tennis, Nadal seemed almost stunned by the proposition.
"I don't think so, no," Nadal said. He says no a lot. Almost at the end of every sentence. "First of all, I'm never going to say something like this from me (about being the best). Second, I don't think so, no?
"I am playing a good season but if I lost the final of Wimbledon, the season doesn't change too much. So I'm happy now I'm playing but still No. 2 and still with the same motivation for continuing to improve my tennis."
This is where tennis differs from other just about every other sports. It's so nice. In boxing, the heavyweight champion doesn't talk about what would have happened had he lost his last match. He doesn't even think that way. He talks more about his next match. And how he can't be beaten. Ever.
"I think nobody don't wants to be No. 1," said Nadal in his own words. "I wants to be No. 1 for sure, but right now, I don't want to be No. 1. Right now I only want to play a very good tournament here in Toronto."
There is, in fairness, something lost in translation. He can't understand my Spanish. I can't understand some of his English. Although some of what he says is quite clear, no?
Unlike Federer, he doesn't care much for the Olympics as a big-time tennis event. He wants Grand Slams. Like Federer, he too, hasn't watched the historic final they played at Wimbledon (and we wonder: Doesn't Brad Pitt watch after he has made a great movie?) Say this much for big time tennis: There is no villain in the Top Two. There is just popular and more popular. Talented and more talented. Classy and classier. This isn't quiet Bjorn Borg against the evil John McEnroe. There is no one to hate, here. There isn't a side to choose except both.
This is a rivalry with texture but the texture is smooth.
"I will love to play against him (Federer)," said Nadal, who has no problem with his ranking. "If I do (play him), I'm going to be in the finals. Going to be a very good result for me to play in the finals here."
Good for him. Good for tennis. Good for the Canadian Open, no?