More than a decade has passed since Rafael Nadal competed at the inaugural Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.
Back then, a 22-year-old kid from Spain had already achieved superstar status: he was a five-time grand slam champion, an Olympic gold medallist, twice a Davis Cup winner, had won 31 ATP Tour titles, and had ended Roger Federer’s four-and-a-half year reign as world No 1.
In the 11 subsequent years and now aged 33, that status has been upgraded to all-time great. A further 53 titles have followed – including 14 grand slams – three more Davis Cups, and an accumulative total of 203 weeks in the top ranking.
MWTC has, fitness permitting, been a constant throughout, the pre-season tournament at Zayed Sports City proving a key part of Nadal's preparations for a new season. There have been 12 editions so far and Nadal has featured in 10 of them, his epic victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in Saturday's final ensuring a record fifth title.
“Everything is similar – the only negative point is I’m 11 years older, but I’m still alive and playing good tennis,” Nadal said when asked to compare his first MWTC visit to his most recent.
He may be 11 years older, but the famous intensity remains as strong as ever. Anyone who was inside the stadium on Saturday night to witness the grueling 3hr 12min final can attest to that. MWTC may be an exhibition tournament, but the Nadal mindset means he was never going to compete at anything less than full speed.
Considering this year’s tournament was a week earlier than normal and Nadal’s 2019 season finished later – after leading Spain to Davis Cup glory – he would have had every right to go through the motions and gradually build up his match fitness following a short off-season. That, of course, is not the Nadal way.
“It’s like the beginning of the new season, so I don’t play this event like it’s the end of 2019, I play like it’s the start of 2020,” he said.
“It was important to come here and feel competitive, because I have been working at home but I have not been able to play [competitively] like the last two days. I have been working hard step-by-step to be ready for the beginning of January.”
Indeed, hard work has formed the foundation of Nadal’s career. That is not to discount the immeasurable talent the Spaniard possesses, but his warrior spirit has undoubtedly given him the self-belief to not only maintain his place at the top but has also proved invaluable in his many battles with injuries over the years.
“I can’t predict what is going to happen in the future,” Nadal said. “I can only talk about the things that are in my hands and that is to keep working well and keep doing the right things to be ready for every single event I am able to play. Then, hopefully, my body respects my passion for what I am going.”
It is that passion and love for the game that keeps Nadal driving forward as he prepares to enter his 18th season on the ATP Tour, and as his incomparable career creeps ever closer to its inevitable conclusion, he is prepared to make the most of every remaining opportunity.
“The motivation comes from doing something that is not forever,” he said. “Something that you have prepared all your life to do, and honestly it’s a gift to be able to enjoy this sport at the highest level at this point in my career. I want to try to stay as long as possible in this situation, so that is why I am trying to do things the right way every single day.”