There is something different this year about Rafael Nadal, which was noticeable even before his triumph at Roland Garros made him the world's best tennis player again. A period without playing, forced on him by a knee injury, seems to have wrought a transformation – not least because of his previous fall from the top of the tennis tree just after grasping the number one spot from his eternal rival, Roger Federer.
The changes are good news for those who want a repeat of the greatest tennis match of all time – the 4 hour 48 minute, five-set epic which saw him finally grab the Wimbledon title off Federer in 2008. Although rain and fading light added extra drama to that historic encounter, the key lay in the determination of Rafa – as his fellow Spaniards call him - to adapt his devastatingly successful clay-court game to grass.
“It was the most epic match I've ever played,” he tells me when we meet in Madrid, a few weeks before Roland Garros. “Everything that happened seemed to pile on the tension.”
The new Rafa to have emerged from injury looks even more like a grass player. The big-muscled, boy-machine who walked on to the court of Roland Garros five years ago, aged just eighteen, to pummel and grunt his way to his first grand slam title now seems lighter-footed.
“I weigh exactly the same,” he insists, adding that he has not changed his game to protect his dodgy knees. But that weight seems to have been redistributed to provide a more balanced, refined body. The bulky torso and the meaty biceps look less Popeye-like than they once did, without that stopping a dizzy rise back towards the top. Rafa seems fuller and more rounded as a person too - even if, aged 24, he still lives with his mum.
The transformation comes without Rafa losing some of the innocently charming attributes he has brought to the high-octane world of first class tennis. This, after all, is a man who still thanks ball-boys and always stands aside so his opponent can sit down first in the break between changing ends. Rafa, Spaniards agree, is a “buen chico” - a good boy - with none of the arrogance or bombast of other Spanish sports stars, like Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso or some of the native-born gods of soccer.
In fact, he is so absolutely, stunningly and determinedly normal that, actually, he is quite exceptional. And this very family-centred, Spanish version of normality – revolving around his mum, dad (although they divorced last year) and his coach Uncle Toni – is an essential ingredient in his recipe for success.
What Rafa definitely hasn't managed to overcome, however, is his obvious discomfort at being interviewed. Before meeting him, I watched his first ever television interview on YouTube. A twelve-year-old Rafa had just lost the final of the Spanish under-14s tournament, but was clearly destined for a great future in tennis. Little Rafa spent most of that interview talking to his shoes, only occasionally squinting suspiciously up at the camera.
Twelve years later our interview turns him into a squirming, writhing mass of limbs that stretch, bend and knot themselves together uncomfortably across the sofa while he peers continually at his watch. Rafa talks best with his racket – a record 18 ATP Masters 1000 and a further seven Grand Slam titles shouting his on-court brilliance louder than words ever could.
Even speaking in his native Spanish, as we do in the interview, he can hardly be described as loquacious. When I said that I expected to spend an hour with Rafa, his press man told me that keeping him talking that long would be a rare feat. He was right. Rafa is polite, but it seems an act of kindness to let him go before the hour is up – as if by keeping him away from a tennis court I am robbing him of the pleasures not just of his personal playground, but of what has been his second home since the age of four.
His real home remains his mum's place on the Balearic island of Mallorca. Their small home town of Manacor is unremarkable - about the size of Whitstable, Kent, or Spalding, Lincolnshire, and made only marginally more exciting by being a few miles from the Mediterranean.
“I live as I have done for my whole life. Nothing has changed,” he explains. “For me, it is important to live surrounded by my family. It makes me happy.” This is where he scurries back to between tournaments. “Every time I lose, or if there is a tournament that I don't play, that is where I go,” he says.”
I tell him that this might cause surprise in Britain – that a 24-year-old who has earned nearly 30 million dollars in five years might be expected to move out of his old room and find his own home. Nor, I add, would people expect someone like that to speak to their mum, their dad and their sister by phone every day. “Really?” he asks, genuinely surprised that anyone would consider wealth or age to be reasons for abandoning the warmth of a family. “Of course I talk to them every day,” he says. “For me, at least, that is the most normal thing in the world.”
Even his coach, his father's brother Toni, comes from the intimate family circle that even tennis stardom cannot breach. Toni started coaching him when he was just four. “He is a special person in my life,” says Rafa. “Without him there is no way I would be where I am today.”
It has always been a nurturing relationship, much more than just an ambitious coach teamed with a child prodigy. When Rafa was younger, he believed Toni possessed magic powers. His uncle had promised that if a match went badly, he would use those powers to make it rain and bring the game to a sudden end. Rafa believed him, and famously begged his wizard uncle to do the exact opposite, by stopping the rain that threatened to spoil a match he was winning.
Nadal, then, likes to win – but, most of all, he likes to play. What he hates, far more than losing a match, is having to walk off the court limping with an injury, as he was forced to do earlier this year at the Australian Open during his quaterfinal match against Andy Murray.
Losing is just a natural consequence of competing (though it comes relatively rarely, and not in Madrid last month, where he recovered the number two spot by beating Roger Federer in the final or in Paris last week where he won every set he played and walked away with his fifth Roland Garros). Being injured, however, is being cheated from playing.
Surely, I ask him, he was upset at getting knocked out of the first tournaments of his come-back this season, at Indian Wells and Miami? “Not really,” he says. “I played well, I just didn't win.” The narrow line between winning tournaments and not winning them, he explains, has as much to do with the head and heart as with the body. Victories in Rome, Monte Carlo, Madrid and Paris have proved that Rafa's head is firmly screwed back in place. “Now I've won some important titles again, my confidence has grown,” he says.
Beating Federer in Madrid, a full year since their previous encounter, and then going on to snatch back the number one spot has revived the defining rivalry of modern tennis – with Wimbledon 2010 billed as the next great showdown.
“To have a player as complete as Roger always in front of you, is a stimulus to keep on improving day after day,” says Rafa. “We both give it all on the court, but once you are off the court it is all over. It is a game, and that is all. There are things in life that are a lot more important. We are both normal people and I have always got on brilliantly with Roger.”
Still, life at the top throws some interesting experiences at him. He recently starred in the music video of Colombian “Hips don't lie” sex symbol singer, Shakira. A scantily-dressed Shakira plays a hip-gyrating gypsy intent on seducing a bare-chested, impeccably-buffed Rafa. The steamy video is, depending on how you look at it, either very sexy, excruciatingly embarrassing or rather sweet. Close examination reveals them both trying hard to control the giggles – undoubtedly the best way of coping with Rafa's embarrassment (and, one imagines, excitement) at finding himself in a tight, semi-clad clinch with one of the Latin world's sexiest stars.
“There were a few scenes that were difficult, especially for me, as I am not used to that sort of thing,” he admits. “It was a different experience to television adverts and other things I had done before. It was a good experience though – a way to get to know another world, apart from being with a fantastic girl like Shakira. All I can do is thank her.”
Now I know why the word almost everyone I spoke to on the circuit used to describe Rafa was “gentleman”. Even in Spain, where a dozen scurrilous television programmes and half-a-dozen glossy gossip magazines vie with one another to speculate on the love lives of the rich, famous and almost famous, Nadal's absolute normality gives them no room for manoeuvre. He goes out with one of his sister's friends – sticking to his island roots again.
The trouble with winning tournaments, however, is that often there is no space between the one you have just won and the next one to go back home. Nadal is famous, for example, for winning Roland Garros (and biting the trophy to celebrate, his trademark gesture) only to appear on a training court at Queens, in London, within 24 hours – pounding the ball until long after everyone else has gone home.
After that comes Wimbledon and, everyone hopes, another classic showdown with Federer. Wimbledon's central court is, he says, the most special in the world – and the only place, during that epic 2008 match, where he ever truly lost his nerve.
“It was during the tie-break in the fourth set,” he says. “I just seemed to run out of air.” He went on to win the mach nonetheless. Rafa is five years younger than his rival and, if the knees hold out, may eventually become even more of an all-time legend than the Swiss player. By then he might even have moved away from his mum. He would never go far, however. Rafa Nadal will always be the Baleares homeboy first, and the tennis superstar second.