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"You mean have bodyguards?" he asks.
No. But, sure, what were you going to say about that?
"When you have bodyguards, everything is more difficult. That's when people recognize you. When you go normal, it's easier to go out without problems, people are respectful. O.K., maybe you sign autographs or do photos, but no problem."
But beyond bodyguards—
"I have to be myself. I cannot be someone I am not."
Roger Federer is such a graceful tennis stylist that Nadal has been cast in the role of the grinder, Hephaestus to Federer's Apollo. The contrast is entirely too facile. There's artistry in Nadal's capacity to go from defense to offense in a single stroke, and in his ability to generate ungodly spin on shots whose angles defy the laws of geometry. "The nuances aren't past him," says Andy Roddick. John McEnroe calls Nadal the most skilled net player this side of Federer.
But if Nadal isn't a natural, he's used that to his advantage. "It's given me motivation to keep working on improving," he says. Has another champion—in any sport—made such radical upgrades from year to year, forever expanding the borders of his ability? In this, perhaps, Nadal resembles the athlete to whom Federer is so often compared: Tiger Woods. A few years ago, determined not to be another Spanish clay-court specialist, Nadal worked on his grass-court skills, shortening his strokes and hugging the baseline. He hasn't lost at Wimbledon since 2007.
Last year Nadal went to New York City hell-bent on ending his string of defeats at the U.S. Open, the one major he had never won. "I know I needed to serve better," he said. Adjusting his grip and sacrificing spin for power, he added 10 mph to his serve. Nadal dropped just one set in seven matches, completing the career Grand Slam at 23.
"People think once you are a pro, you're done improving, it's just tournaments," Nadal says. "That cannot be. Sometimes it might be a [stroke], sometimes it might be attitude, but you can always get better." The thought hangs; then he adds, "Other players might feel different."
Late one afternoon in London in November, Nadal practiced with Marc López, his sometime doubles partner, flown in for the week to serve as his sparring partner. This was a playful session, two countrymen rifling shots and trash talk at each other. If you didn't know the identity of the players, you might not have guessed that López is ranked 723 spots lower. He hung in during the rallies and served as hard as Nadal. So why the disparity in their careers? "The problem," explains another Spanish player, "is that Marc s---- his pants when there's pressure."