Rafael Nadal: El Matador de Mallorca

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Nadal in action at the Barclays ATP Tour Finals in London last week

Rafael Nadal is not your average sporting superstar.

Few men in the game of tennis can claim to have won all four Grand Slam titles – seven to be exact.

Rather than bask in the adulation of being one of the sport’s figureheads, driving fast cars and chucking away prize money, the ‘King of Clay’ is far more at home with his fishing rod, dating a local girl.

Nadal and his childhood sweetheart, Xisca Perello, have navigated themselves through the glitz and glamour of being globally recognised.

While entire volumes could be written from trawling the left-hander’s glittering career on court, very little can be fished about the woman who has been alongside him for the best part of a decade.

Distracting hangers-on are not part of his cabal; Uncle Toni is still his trusted coach. Having poor advisors cannot be applied to this Spanish hard-hitter; Emmanuel Adebayor, he is not.

Perhaps this is what’s required in order to reach a state of tennis nirvana.

The eight-time French Open Champion has recently reclaimed his status as World Number One following a memorable 2013 in which he has soared like a phoenix rising from the ashes of injury to a tale of redemption.

Twelve months ago, the 27-year-old cut a forlorn figure in his Manacor home with little to console him from the depressing reality that his fight against a severe bout of knee tendinitis was seemingly up.

Fast forward to today, and the man obsessed with court rituals is sitting pretty at the top of the charts once more, having garnered the French and US Open titles in addition to eight tournaments on Tour this year.

A steely resilience and an unwillingness to accept defeat are as symptomatic of Nadal as the raging bull is characteristic of his native Spain.

Much to the chagrin of opponents, commentators and umpires alike, Nadal’s pre-serve routine is as inimitable as it is endless.

But few can denounce this muscle-bound tennis Galactico for the OCD and multiple phobias – including a fear of motorcycles and darkness – from which he suffers.

Not when with grace and no shortage of granite, he produces such a fine array of cross-court play.

One bulging backhand down the line to save break-point is all you need as evidence to dissuade you from ridiculing his piratical bandana and sleeveless T-shirt.

Endearing or embarrassing – call it what you will – this Adonis amongst a sea of Mediterranean Adonises still places his numerous trophies alongside stuffed animals in his Mallorcan family home – if the words of his cruel mother are to be believed.

The idyllic backdrop of a quaint family-oriented lifestyle belies the ferocity displayed on court that has rendered 13 Grand Slam titles since he turned professional in 2001.

Such a proud record is all the more impressive when acknowledged in light of the ‘Golden Age’ of tennis we are currently living through.

At a time in football when International caps are thrown around like confetti, wrestling a sustained period of dominance as la crème de la crème of tennis is virtually impossible with Messrs Djockovic, Murray and Federer snapping at your heels.

A glance at the Spaniard’s all-time favourite films – Titanic and Gladiator – indicates why he has never been ranked outside the World’s top five tennis players since 2003.

While big-money movies can’t be viewed as the making of this big-money behemoth, his journey from winning his first ATP match as a 15-year-old against Ramon Delgado to cementing his place at the top of the ATP rankings is far removed from ‘Barney’s Great Adventure’.

Even in the final throes of a gruelling year at the ATP World Tour Finals in London held last week, Nadal was unwavering in his quest to end the year with panache.

His straight-sets defeat to Djokovic at the O2 event will have hurt him as much as his first-round elimination at Wimbledon in June – such is the unrelenting pursuit of perfection that drives the two-time Champion of SW19.

Now in the close season, Nadal will most likely recuperate in Mallorca among his family and friends. But don’t expect him to rest on his laurels for too long.

As our very own Andy Murray has learned to his cost, you are at your most vulnerable when you have appeared to overcome a major psychological hurdle.

The Brit’s hasty exit at the quarter-final stage of the US Open, followed by minor back surgery, have somewhat taken the gloss away from that historic Wimbledon win.

Expect the Spaniard to soon be resuming his affinity for La Quinta Resort, the desert oasis that is home to the No.1 tennis resort in the United States.

There promises to be a stronger than ever field in the battle for tennis supremacy next year. Immovable, insatiable, undaunted: Expect Nadal to be pinching his Nike underpants as the Imperial Commander.

Newcastle 2-0 Chelsea

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Yoan Gouffran headed the crucial opening goal.

Newcastle responded from their dramatic derby day defeat in emphatic fashion this Saturday lunchtime, as goals from Yoan Gouffran and Loïc Remy proved the difference between them and Chelsea at St. James’ Park.

The win moves Alan Pardew’s side up to 9th in the league, with Chelsea moving below Liverpool into third on goal difference prior to the Merseyside club’s trip to Arsenal later today.

Newcastle began the game like a side on the back of two defeats in a week. While both sides were wasteful in possession, the home side were particularly profligate with the ball.

The home side certainly rode their luck. First, John Terry planted a header against the crossbar, and his defensive companion, Branislav Ivanovic, then saw his deflected shot clip the woodwork. Mata then went down in the area under pressure from Debuchy – on another day, with another referee, there might have been a different outcome.

The home side were again relying on the quality of Cabaye to wrestle a foothold in the game. His spirited run at the heart of the Chelsea defence culminated in another long-range effort that at least brought the home crowd to their feet, even if it did sail harmless over the bar.

Newcastle were giving away corners far too readily – a sign that the Magpies hadn’t learnt from being the conceders of the joint-most headed goals this season in the league. Following yet another Chelsea set-piece, in which Terry had another effort, this time cleared off the line, Newcastle countered and saw a Sissoko shot sting the hands of Cech.

It was a rare moment of free-flowing football prior to the interval that would have given the home side the grains of comfort that would form the platform for a far better second half showing. Indeed, Chelsea had only kept three clean sheets in their last 12 Premier League away games, so they would have every reason to believe their opponents would be breached once more.

Alan Pardew made his game-plan clear in his pre-match programme notes: ‘keep the game tight and ensure we don’t get in a position where Chelsea can work between our lines.’ Players such as Mata, Hazard and Oscar are certainly capable of doing precisely that. Given that the Blues have only lost once in the past 15 Premier League games in which the trio have started, it is surprising how rare Jose Mourinho chooses to line up with them behind a striker.

Despite controlling the pace of the game throughout the first half, Newcastle managed to achieve their objective of frustrating their opponents, and a cagey first 45 minutes came to a close with the stalemate yet to be broken.

Chelsea started the second half with greater urgency – Torres came close to breaching the offside trap on more than one occasion. Both sides showed greater realisation of the importance of the fixture in their individual quests to bring an identity to their seasons now that it had entered its second quarter.

Cheik Tiote was removed five minutes into the second half, with Vurnon Anita entering the fray. The Cameroon international would’ve liked to have still been on the field moments later, as the increasingly wet surface welcomed a succession of sliding tackles that left Eden Hazard evidently worse for wear.

Then, as the home side began to dictate proceedings, Debuchy played a ball inside Cole, releasing Sissoko. His cross-come-shot inadvertently came off Cech’s elbow and trickled narrowly wide. From the resulting corner, Chelsea failed to clear, and when Cabaye’s cross was headed back across goal by Sissoko, Remy had a point-blank effort saved by Cech. Either side of the tall Czech goalkeeper, and Newcastle would surely have been in front.

Cisse then came on for Ameobi, as Newcastle looked to convert the momentum that had gathered into a slender advantage. Gouffran cut inside Ivanovic and brought another smart save from Cech at his near post. The Frenchman was not to be denied, however. 

With just over 20 minutes to go, he was wheeling away in celebration as he beat John Terry to a precise delivery by Cabaye to nod Newcastle ahead.

Were it not for a super intervention at the last by Terry, Newcastle may have doubled their advantage. Remy was put clear through on goal by Anita, but was denied by a sliding challenge from the former England captain.

Chelsea were now showing all their cards. Substitutes Willian and Eto’o combined and the latter may feel he should’ve done better with a shot that was turned round the post by Krul. It was the visitors’ first real opening in the second period, after peppering the home side’s goal in the first. 

Newcastle were then made to do some last-ditch defending of their own. First, a Willian shot was saved by the Dutch goalkeeper, and Hazard seemed set to provide the visitors with parity from the rebound. But for a fantastic block from Yanga-Mbiwa, he almost certainly would have. 

As the clock ticked towards 90, the Belgian winger came close to equalising once more, but saw his well-driven shot glide narrowly outside Krul’s left-hand post. It would prove a critical moment in the game, as moments later, Newcastle sealed the victory.

Anita – who had been at the heart of much of the home side’s improved second-half display, was released down the left, and his cut back was converted by Loïc Remy, via Cech’s right-hand post. 

There would be no late drama. Newcastle had the three points, and Chelsea were left ruing those first-half opportunities that helped consign them to their second defeat of the season.