After eleven months without a title, Rafael Nadal has his sights set on a second consecutive Grand Slam.
There's the old adage that pertains to Rafael Nadal's fine form of late: "If you love your work, you'll do it well."
It's fitting in Nadal's case - he's obviously loving the work, and he showed that today with his exuberant post-match celebration after a hard-fought 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win over the Japanese-American youngster Kei Nishikori.
Nadal is just so PRESENT out there. He's conscious, aware, and dialed in. He's like a jazz improviser, possessing great feel for his own abilities, the abilities of his opponent, and the context in which the key points in the match are being played. When the intensity rises, Nadal doesn't misinterpret. He rises too, and often leaves his opponent dragging his feet.
Take today's second set against the hard-hitting Nishikori, for example. The pair were dead even at 4-4, and Nishikori was heading towards what looked to be a comfortable hold, serving at 40-15. Turns out it wasn't so comfortable. Smash, boom, bang! Nadal, ever-perceptive and ever-opportunistic, was quick to take advantage of Nishikori's slight lapse in concentration to grab the break.
Then, understanding the importance of consolidating, the Spaniard aggressively served out the set as if his life depended on it. It was all downhill from there.
It's veteran know-how like this, combined with a pugilistic approach to every point that make Nadal so difficult to compete with. The competition might let up, but Nadal never does,
and his ability to perpetually read and react to the subtleties of the moment is one of the things that makes the Nadal package so extraordinary.
As Mary Carillo stated during his match with Nishikori, Nadal plays the score so well. Having the strokes and the fitness- and we know he has those - is one thing, but understanding which strokes to select for which circumstances is where Nadal puts the world in world-class.
Nadal is like a race car driver on the court, one who has an acute understanding of when to accelerate, when to brake for a turn, and when to go for the pass. His intuition is just as lethal as his inside-out forehand, his mental toughness and big-picture clarity are just as lethal as his two-handed backhand return.
Amazingly, as bold and nasty as Rafa can be, he's also equally humble. And this humility allows him to avoid the pitfalls that so many other top players experience. It's the humility that instills in him the belief that he is beatable and therefore he'll have to keep improving to stay on top of the field.
It's the humility, in a sense, that keeps him striving, and when he's striving, he's happy. That's why you see him celebrating a first-round victory over Kei Nishikori with such unbridled enthusiasm.
Nadal has the uncanny ability to simultaneously live in the moment (the smile) and to perpetually prepare for the next moment (the frown). It's a rare and deadly combination, and it speaks volumes about the type of person - and champion - that Rafa is.
His infectious enthusiasm and dogged pursuit of perfection are what have captivated his legions of fans from the get-go. He's one of those rare breed of players that realizes that the sport is bigger than him.
For other players on tour, it's not always clear why they play the game, but for Rafa, there isn't any doubt: the man oozes respect for the game and lust for the competition. It must be love.