Darkness falls as Rafael Nadal finishes his practice session in the California desert town of Indian Wells. He's sitting courtside surrounded by his coach, his physio, and his practice partner when the opponent he'll face later tonight, David Nalbandian, heads onto the same court, followed by his coach, his physio, and his practice partner. Physically, the players are opposites: Nadal's golden-umber skin, deep-set inky eyes, and prominent cheekbones evoke 19th-century paintings of Mayan chiefs; Nalbandian's blond ponytail, long stubble, and messianic blue eyes recall a pirate on an extended binge.
Nalbandian saunters over to Nadal, his insistent machismo lending the meeting of the two camps the air of the Jets confronting the Sharks, but with high fives all around. Nadal is friendly and polite, but he's subdued, probably because of his history with Nalbandian, who is known as King David in his native Argentina and is a strike-first player who can beat anybody when he's in the mood, which he isn't in all that much.
Still, in the past two years, Nalbandian is the only man to have developed a winning record over Nadal, the number one-ranked player in the world. Nalbandian has beaten the Spaniard convincingly in the two matches they've played. In this third encounter, in March at the BNP Paribas Open, Nadal has a lot at stake. If he loses, it means there's an opponent out there who's got him figured out.
In the locker room Nadal goes through his standard pre-match drill. He showers, gets his ankles taped, gets taped below his knees. He ties on his Nike headband, puts on headphones, and listens to Spanish pop and The Phantom of the Opera while jogging around and jumping in place.
Shortly after 11 pm he enters the arena, emerging apparition-like through the benign haze of desert heat. The court is his domain, the realm he commands, but tonight the intimidation factor belongs to Nalbandian. Nadal plays defensively, allowing Nalbandian to capture the first set. Late in the second set, the pro-Nadal crowd sinks into mute apprehension when Nadal butchers a service game and gives Nalbandian a match point. Nadal fends it off, then fends off three more as fans erupt with fervid cries of "Vamos Rafa!" When Nadal snuffs out a fifth match point with a ferocious backhand winner, the crowd goes wild, which is saying something when you're playing in a retirement community and it's one o'clock in the morning.
Revived and aggressive, Nadal seizes the second set. By now Nalbandian has tried everything and made the mistake that Nadal forces you to make: He has tried too hard. Like a matador vexing a bull, Nadal bedevils his opponent, crushing any lingering hopes he harbors of escaping unscathed. At last, Nadal moves in for the kill, purposeful, pitiless, imperturbable.
"I change completely," Nadal will say later. "I decided to change."