He's largely immune to the familiar seductions of fame and coddling because he wants it that way. Set to turn 23 this month, he still lives with his family on the isle of Mallorca, where he relaxes by fishing with high school friends, where his mother still admonishes him to clean up his room, and where he's dated the same hometown girl since he was 19.
At 6'1, Nadal looks strikingly taller and more slender than he does on television, with wide shoulders and a long, tapering torso. Though he has more muscle mass and power than any other player, his aspect is light, like a big convivial kid who borrowed his father's body for a special occasion. Eating, talking, watching golf, he drums his fingers on tabletops while his legs bob up and down, dispensing energy like a Catherine wheel shooting off sparks. In conversation he maintains eye contact, smiles a lot, and laughs easily, usually at himself.
One evening, in the players lounge, I play some table tennis against Nadal. As he bats the ball to me and misses some shots, I entertain the bizarre possibility that I might play better than he does. Then he quickens the pace, and I start missing, though whenever I manage to knock one by him he says, "Good! Good!"
He'd planned to play with his practice partner Marc Lopez, so after sending a few balls into the net, I set the paddle down. "Can't stop on a bad shot," Nadal insists, so we play until I eke out a good one. Then I watch as he and Lopez slap mad winners off the table, and my delusion is crushed as Nadal hunkers down, looking to win, shouting, "Come on!" in a pitch-perfect imitation of Lleyton Hewitt.
Early in his career Nadal described himself as a "simple boy." Now he's a simple young man, or, as revealed when we played table tennis, he is two simple men. There's the gentle, nurturing kid and the fierce, unyielding contender. What's noteworthy is that he's so gentle and so fierce that it's hard to square, even by those who know him best. Before a recent match, he lunched with his part-time coach Francisco Roig. They watched golf on television, joked, and laughed until Nadal headed to the locker room. Roig knew that when he joined him there half an hour later, Nadal would have undergone a metamorphosis. "He will be playing the match half an hour before it begins," said Roig, and his otherwise sunny countenance will be reconfigured into the fearsome snarl that causes Nadal's mother to remark that she doesn't recognize her son when he's playing.
Yet even when he's at his most ferocious, the core of his being is calm. He insists that he isn't calm by nature, which is no news to anyone who saw him play in his teens, when his volcanic emotions manifested in windmill fist pumps, flying leaps, and a penchant for celebrating a 15-love score as if he'd won a grand slam.
"He had to learn to keep calm," says his manager Carlos Costa, "to stay calm for the important moments, which, when he was a kid, was every moment."
It's a lesson that sustained him when he was the world's number two player for an unprecedented three years, waiting for an opening to become number one. Last year, as he neared that opportunity, rain halted the decisive fifth set of his Wimbledon final with Roger Federer. For the next hour Nadal was sequestered in the locker room with his coach and his trainer.
"Be calm," he told them. "I am going to win."