Nadal ready to defend his kingdom in 2009

After 160 weeks at No. 2, Rafael Nadal knows how arduous it is to reach tennis' pinnacle. AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano

Is this temporary? Perhaps a pause in the Federer era? Or is Rafael Nadal destined to become the founder of a new era? How long will Nadal remain at the top of the tennis world?

"I believe he could stay as the No. 1 easily two or three more years," said Carlos Costa, Nadal's agent. "He will have a hard battle this year, but he is the best player right now."

Legendary and contemporary stars such as Rod Laver -- the only pro to win the four Grand Slams in the same year and considered the best player of all time -- John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and even Roger Federer agree that Nadal should be considered the best player.

However, the Spaniard, who shows a maturity far beyond his 22 years, is building his career one game at a time, focused on the present with one supreme goal in mind: playing well.

"Honestly, I did not project to be the No. 1 player by the end of the season, but you have to take advantage of the opportunities you have in life, and the same goes for tennis," Nadal said to ESPN Deportes La Revista.

"It's obviously important for me [to be the top-ranked player]. It is one of those things you always dream about when you are a kid, and you know it is so hard to achieve. We all want to be the best, and it's nice to achieve it."

Things did not come easily for Nadal. Although some experts such as McEnroe had predicted since 2005 that Nadal someday would end Federer's dominance, sometimes it seemed that "Rafa" was doomed to second place as long as the Swiss champion stayed in court.

Nadal even said at the beginning of last season: "I'm happy being No. 2, and I could stay this way for the next 100 years." And months after that, after handily defeating Federer at the Roland Garros final, he told a German newspaper, "I'm the best No. 2 in history."

He's probably right. Before interrupting Federer's reign of 4½ years (since February 2002), Nadal established a permanent record by spending 160 weeks behind the Swiss. To overcome him, Nadal had to reinvent himself as a complete player and win titles on surfaces beyond clay, on which he has ruled during the past four years.

His epic victory at the Wimbledon final, a five-set and almost five-hour win in Federer's favorite tourney, summed up the difficulties Nadal had to deal with and overcome to reach where he is now.

With the same simplicity he uses to make hard shots look easy, Nadal explains his rise in the rankings and the keys to sustain first place: "It is very simple. To keep the first place you have to win games and tournaments. We know that it's not easy, but much of it will depend on my game, on how I fare in a certain tourney, on my luck and my health. If I did it once, then I can do it again, but everything will depend on the moment."

One of his main obstacles is the circuit's scoring system. To preserve his position, the No. 1 player in the world has to maintain the level that took him to this place.

The position in the ATP standings is determined by the points earned at 13 mandatory tournaments (the four Grand Slams and the nine Masters Series) and the five best results in other eligible international competitions. The No. 1 player is the one who earns the most points, according to this sum, and consequently the one who defends more points.

For example, Nadal won two Grand Slams (1,000 points each) and reached the semifinals in the other two (450 points). He won Masters Series events in Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Toronto (500 points each), reached the final in three other Masters (350 points), the semifinals in two (225) and was eliminated in the second round in Rome (five). Among the non-mandatory events, he won the gold medal in Beijing (400 points) and claimed the victory in Barcelona (300) and Queens (225).

Luis Alfredo Alvarez, the Venezuelan tennis broadcaster for ESPN Deportes, sees Nadal as a great No. 1 but not a contemporary legend. Alvarez assures that the most difficult task for the player born in Mallorca will be to show the consistency that allowed Federer to dominate the sport for 4½ years: "It won't be easy, and I believe the No. 1 will return to the true owner: Roger Federer."

When it seemed as though 2008 could be the year of his coronation, the great champion had a tough season: Federer did not even win a Masters Series event and could only rescue the title at the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam of the year.

"Federer is Federer, and when people said that he was finished, I've always denied it. Not only because I knew he was going to win big tourneys again, but also because I considered him the best player of all time," Nadal said.

Federer will have many challenges in 2009: He needs to earn two more Grand Slams to break Pete Sampras' 14-wins record, and if Roland Garros is among those victories, he could close the circle by winning the four most important titles in the circuit. If he does so, he'll recover the rankings position he owned for 237 consecutive weeks.

"Roland Garros has become an obsession for Federer, and by changing his style to win it, he has lost track of other competitions," Alvarez said. "If he forgets about Roland Garros, then he will have better chances to recover the first place."

In the tennis world, most agree that Federer will have a bigger motivation this season. Nadal knows it. So when he mentions a list of his most dangerous opponents, Federer is at the top.

"I've always said that my biggest opponent is the next one. Whatever round it is. Everybody plays well here, some better than others, but anybody can beat you on a given day. So the biggest opponent is in every round. Of course, then we have a player like Federer, who can win everything. But there are also some young guys who have been pushing hard and are very good. I'm talking about [Novak] Djokovic, [Andy] Murray, [Juan Martin] Del Potro and [Marin] Cilic."

The former Argentine player and David Nalbandian's coach, Martin Jaite, does not hesitate when he says that "Nadal's No. 1 enemy -- and any player's biggest enemy -- is the circuit's demands."

After being eliminated at the U.S. Open semifinals, Nadal said he was physically and mentally exhausted. He played the most games of any player on the circuit this past season.

With such a nutty calendar, tennis players hardly have time to breathe. More wins translate into less rest, precisely what Rafa experienced this year. Furthermore, the Spaniard usually plays long points, interchanging shots from the serve line. Nadal consistently plays such marathon matches -- case in point: the Wimbledon final -- that he'd rather take the morning shifts. Playing at night usually means concluding games past midnight.

Nadal seems recharged to deal with the mental and physical obstacles that lie ahead. If he does overcome them, he could build a solid and long reign: the Nadal era.

Rogelio Mora is a senior writer for ESPN Deportes La Revista.