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YOU Have Got To Love Rafa Nadal By Alix Ramsay For 10sBalls

You have got to love Rafa Nadal.

While the majority of players walk into the press room with a look of detached boredom (some even have a fixed frown of disgust: “I play a match and now you want me to talk to this lot? Good God, people. Do you think I’m a machine?”), Rafa is completely the opposite.

As he strode into the interview room after reaching the fourth round on Saturday, his eye fell on the mighty ASAP writers, Linda and Michelle.

Since the start of the tournament, he had not had a chance to say hello to his stenographer chums. So only after a gentlemanly handshake and a warm – and very European – kiss on both cheeks for both writers followed by an enquiry as to their health and happiness (and only then) was he prepared to take on the world’s media.

And when he did, he had a mixed bag of questions to deal with. Hard, penetrating, ground-breaking questions that would reveal the inner Rafa, the soul of the champion.

Did he feel lacking match toughness because of the walkover he received in the second round? No.

How about helping the overwhelmed kid in the autograph crush? (Rafa lifted the kid out of the crush of people and got him to stop sobbing. Later he may or may not have walked on water.) What else was he supposed to do – this was normal behaviour, no?

Why don’t you eat meat and cheese? [This one was left field even for the left field bloke asking the question]. Because he doesn’t like cheese. And he does eat meat but he prefers fish. He has nothing against meat.

And then, with the sort of timing that never ceases to amaze the visitors to these press facilities, an American voice follows up on the dietary stuff and, without a hint of humour or context, asks: “Your slice backhand and your slice backhand volleys were working very, very well today. Is that the pattern part of your success this summer?”

Had these exchanges been written by Federico García Lorca, they could not have been any more surreal. And yet, throughout it all, Rafa was good natured, polite and as forthcoming as he could be given the questions he had to work with. Really, you could not make some of this stuff up.

Strangely, what everyone managed to avoid talking about was the fact that our Rafa is looking rather good at the moment. Of course, he was gifted a bye in that second round when the desperately unfortunate Thanasi Kokkinakis had to pull out with yet another injury, but when he has been on court, Raf has been looking sharp.

He squashed Hyeon Chung on Saturday, taking a few games to apply the strangle-hold and then squeezing the life out of the Korean’s challenge over the course of two hours, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Chung tried, he leathered his forehand, he walloped it for all he was worth. And then Rafa clattered his own forehand back and that was the end of that.

After an injury-plagued start to the season and the enforced reduction in his schedule – “I am not 25 anymore,” he said – the fact that he is in New York and feeling fit and healthy is all that matters.

“Honestly, I had the first three months of the season, three, four months of the season very hard, too many issues again,” he said. “And then it’s true that since Barcelona, things have been improving. I was able to fix a little bit the body and play more or less with freedom of movements. That’s give me the chance to compete at the highest level again. And most important thing, enjoy the sport. That’s the main thing in this stage of my career more than anything else.

“I don’t think remain a lot of events for me this year. Just couple of ones. This one is one of the ones that you want to be ready. So here I am to try my best and I’m going to put my 100 per cent to try to be ready for the next round.”

As Greg Rusedski pointed out on Twitter a couple of days ago, Rafa is hitting the ball better than ever (in Greg’s opinion). Anyone who saw him thrash Chung would have noticed that he is moving extremely well and with his more aggressive game style (some of his volleys were simply stunning on Saturday), he is scything through the draw nicely.

Roger Federer has come to town with intent even if he does not rate himself as one of the favourites for the title; those with a fiver to wager are playing safe and going with Novak Djokovic but in the bottom half of the draw, avoiding cheese and munching on a fish supper, there is a very polite Spanish bloke with three US Open titles already in his possession. He really looks like he fancies his chances here this summer.

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