By his own admission, he likes "the fighting more than the winning." And he proves to be the best example around that one can look up to.
Whatever Rafa Nadal's qualities are, the things that stand out the most are his fighting spirit, his magnanimity in victory and defeat, and an unflinching aspiration to improve as a tennis player game after game.
The first and the second are illustrated by many instances. For example, the efforts he put in in successive matches in SF and the Finals of the Australian Open, the presentation ceremony of Wimbledon, and the last which he asserts during every interview is observed over the last year and a half.
There was a time when Rafa was just Roger's party spoiler on Clay. Though even then he held a leading head to head, he was viewed more as a dirt eater and many were not ready to call it a rivalry.
He was not good on all surfaces as Roger was (and is), with the exception of the much slower grass on Wimbledon, but even there he seemed a second best to Roger, like Roger was (is?) second best to him in Roland Garros. But come 2008 he had improved his hard court record.
Rafa's problems on faster surfaces—namely, the running on other surfaces, the service, the flat forehand, the single-fisted backhand slice, the volleying, the tendency to be more offensive than defensive and play inside the baseline, the movement and foot-work required to get into position soon enough on faster courts—each were dealt with systematically and improved upon.
His ascension to the top started with the successful campaign at SW19, and perhaps the Queen's was an omen for what was to come. In five sets of superlative quality, the challenger overcame the champion. After sets three and four, in which he lost the stranglehold that he had on the match after taking the first two sets, he renewed his vow to fight on and on.
One man had to give in, and this time it was Roger Federer. Most of the world was shocked and Federer was emotionally crushed. The man who thought that he had the keys to beat his younger challenger on fast surfaces any given day, the man who had an aura of invincibility, had doubts sown in his mind, and himself was reduced to a mere mortal.
The other significant achievement was the Olympic gold where he took out Djokovic, considered by the end of the previous year to be the second best on hard courts after
The next day, if my memory serves me right, he was crowned the World No. 1. That was more or less the end of 2008 for Nadal.
The punishing schedule had rewarded him, and lived up to its name at the same time—it punished his physique with fatigue, and it was a less than 100 percent Nadal that turned up for the US Open, and who made it to the SFs there.
The Australian Open 2009 was where he completed his Slam collections on all surfaces. He barrelled thorough the opening rounds and met his first real opposition at the SFs, where he prevailed in the longest match in history down under over country man and fellow left-hander Fernando Verdasco.
Many touted him to be the underdog in the final, though now the judgment was based more upon his physical state after such a match rather than Federer's superiority, which would have been the reason had this happened a year earlier. But he displayed unbelievable mental resolve to come out on top in another five-setter.
There were moments in the match where he showed fatigue and was playing erroneously, but the patience and the fighting spirit meant he always was in the game. The victory now has put him alongside the all-time greats.
The "greatest clay-courter of all time," having won the two major hard courts events of this year, if he wins the Sony-Ericsson Open too, will be considered the heavy favourite in any hard court tournament he enters from then on.
He is the overwhelming favourite at Roland Garros and the defending champion at Wimbledon. Nadal has cut down his schedule from last year and with the absence of the Olympics, it seems he will be fitter for the US Open this year, and perhaps a favourite after Federer to win the title.
All things said, it seems Rafa is not satisfied being just World No. 1. It seems 2009 will be the year that witnesses the next calendar year Slam and a new contender for the title of the Greatest of All Time.