No feet of clay, Nadal returns to the 'fabulous place' prepared for the toughest of challenges

FOR a world No 1 and defending Wimbledon champion, Rafael Nadal feels remarkably unburdened by the weight of expectation. Perhaps because in his early days as a clay-court specialist he was never a contender on London's lawns, the Spaniard has always been able to enjoy this fortnight, especially when it has come hot on the heels of one of his victories at Roland Garros.

It is a pleasant position to be in - and yet one Nadal would happily swap for the pressure Andy Murray is under as home favourite. The top seed, who opens his defence on Centre Court this afternoon against America's Michael Russell, is well aware of the British desperation to end the long wait for another title. He knows it could have an adverse effect on Murray, as it did on Tim Henman before him, but believes it is outweighed by the sheer boost of having so many people behind you.

"The pressure is tough, but at the same time, the support is high," Nadal said yesterday. "So I prefer to have this pressure than don't have this pressure."

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For Nadal, the downside of that pressure on the Scot comes mainly before the tournament, and is a consequence of media attention on him. Once he is out on court, the positive aspect takes over.

"To play at home in a Grand Slam is something special," he continued. "Lot of people talking about his victory or he can win, is true. But at the end of the day, in my case - I don't know for him, but I can talk about my experience - I don't read a lot about (what] the newspapers talk about me or about (what] the television says about me. I try to be focused about myself.

"For sure it's very special to play at home. But when you go on court and see all the crowd supporting you it is something very, very emotional and very special. I would love to have this feeling."

The French Open, where he has won six times now, is as close as it gets to a home Grand Slam for the man from Mallorca, who turned 25 at the start of this month. But, having reached the Wimbledon final in each of the last four years in which he has competed - he had to pull out in 2009 because of tendinitis in both knees - Nadal is now pretty much at ease here, too.

He had to work at it, though. In the beginning, he was very much part of the grass-is-for-cows school of thought, and there were those who predicted he would go down in the history of the game as one of the brightest stars on one surface yet no more than a bit-part player on the green stuff.

Then two things changed. One was the surface itself - the grass is now left longer on the courts here, making play slower and more akin to clay. And the other was Nadal himself, who steadily and methodically learned how to adapt his game. "I said one thousand times that my dream always was play well here in Wimbledon," he explained. "That's true.In the beginning of my career everybody talked a lot that with my style of game gonna be always very difficult to play very well here.

"But I worked a lot and I put all my best in every practice. I did my best since the start of my career to play well here, playing the week after Roland Garros, coming here one week before, having the right preparation as much as I can to be ready for this tournament.

"The only problem of grass sometimes is if you play against a big, big server, because the game is too fast and is not nice to play, no, because you feel that for a lot of games you don't touch the ball, no? But if you play against a normal player, a good serve that you can return the ball, in my opinion, the game from the baseline is fantastic to watch and is fantastic to play because you can slice, you can go to the net, you can play aggressive.

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"If you play too defensive it's impossible to play here. But you have different options to do. I love to do that. I love to play in this fabulous place, so I am excited to be back here."

Excited, but wary of the competition, which he thinks is tougher than it has been over the past few years when the only issue to be decided over Wimbledon fortnight often seemed to be whether he or Federer would win. Defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Queen's has left him looking vulnerable, whereas Murray, who won the Aegon Championships there a week ago by beating the Frenchman in the final, is in excellent shape.

It would be foolish to write Nadal off, but in his greatest triumphs he has invariably found inspiration from within. His wish that, like Murray, he could found it from outside could be another small sign - like that loss to Tsonga - of his growing vulnerability.