MALLORCA, SPAIN—In a relaxed group interview given immediately following his record-tying third consecutive French Open victory, world No. 2-ranked tennis player Rafael Nadal attributed his astounding clay-court performance to staying focused, rising to the challenge of facing quality opponents such as Carlos Moyá and Roger Federer, and most importantly, to living a life revolving completely around clay.
"It is no secret that I perform best upon the traditional clay courts," the cheerful, red-smeared Nadal told reporters who visited him in his familial homeland in Spain's Balearic Islands. "This is partially because the slower surface suits my style, plays to my strong forehand, and allows me to best use my energy. And it is partially because I have embraced the fundamental, life-giving clay—the substance from which God formed all men—and taken it into the deepest aspects of my very being."
"Come with me," Nadal said, extending a red-ochre-caked hand to members of the press, gesturing for them to accompany him up the clay pathway to his home. "Come into my world of clay."
Showing off his estate, a sprawling yet modest 19-room cast-clay mansion built on 25 acres of hard-packed red clay, the obviously house-proud Nadal explained the role of clay in his philosophy, training regimen, and daily life, pausing only to point out features such as his 1,000-bottle wine cellar, carved from the very living clay of the island; the Olympic-sized baked-clay swimming pool, which servants were busy filling with fresh, lightly chlorinated clay in preparation for his French Open victory party; and of course, the three tennis courts along the side of his house, one in red clay, one in American-style green clay, and one built with half a court of each type of clay.
"Clay, as everyone knows, punishes the over-precise player and brings a player's instinct into play," said Nadal, sprawling into a clay-formed chaise lounge and dipping a handful of clay from a nearby earthen bowl. "This instinct for how the serve will move, how the volley will progress, even how the break point must be played—this instinct cannot be taught, only shaped as by the potter's hand. And one shapes his instinct by constant communion with that most plastic and moldable of earths."
"I speak, naturally, of clay itself," Nadal added, luxuriating as he worked his handful of clay into his face, neck, and scalp. "Yes. Clay. Yes."
Over a dinner consisting of earthy soups, an unnamed but dark and hearty roast, and unusually brown bread, Nadal denied any dissatisfaction with either his perennial No. 2 ranking or his perceived role as a one-trick player.
"If I am second in the world, it is because so many matches are played on the non-traditional and decadent surface of grass," said Nadal, who sipped upon a post-prandial cup of hot brandied clay in an effort to mask his anger at the mention of what he considers to be a lesser surface. "What is grass but a regrettable parasite upon the pure and pristine clay? And playing well upon clay, upon the very stuff of life, upon the breast of the Earth itself that is not a trick. That is the very deepest alluvial layer of tennis itself."
Nadal then concluded the dinner by offering his guests homemade iced-clay sundaes.
When informed of his rival's clay-based philosophies, top-ranked men's player Roger Federer was nonplussed. "I do not dispute that Rafael is extremely difficult to beat on his favored surface," Federer said in a telephone interview Wednesday, "but I believe it is purely because it suits his personal style of play, not because his attendants encase him in a clay sarcophagus every night. We may be rivals, but I worry about him, especially since he was treated twice last winter in Barcelona for clay inhalation."
"Still, it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of mental preparation," Federer added. "Which is why my house is a single unfurnished 78-by-27-foot room bisected by a three-foot net. Perhaps I shall consider installing clay floors before next year's French open."