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In Aussie defeat, Nadal shows why he is Sportsman of the Year


ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- When we last saw Rafael Nadal, he was teary, sweaty and bitterly disappointed, limping off the court with a torn muscle suffered early in the quarterfinal of the Australian Open. His bid for a "Rafa Slam" spoiled.

But on Monday night, here at the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel, Nadal was smooth and composed, gliding across the marble floors in a black Armani tuxedo.

And though 2011 didn't start the way he wanted, he was still collecting honors for how 2010 finished. On Monday he was named the Sportsman of the Year for 2010, at the Laureus World Sports Awards.

Nadal said, despite the injury, he didn't consider skipping the event.

"This is the most important award in the world of sport," Nadal said. "The best athletes in the world are voting for the award. For me, it is a priority to be here."

Nadal flew in from Spain and said he planned to practice here for the first time since the Australian Open on Tuesday. He had started his year in Abu Dhabi with an exhibition tournament win and said he felt then as prepared and healthy as possible. He hopes to restart his season this week.

"I do treatment, I had to recover," he said. "The injury was not that serious. I hope tomorrow I will have my last test and be 100 percent recovered."

Nadal's next tournament will be in Indian Wells in March. First though, he hopes to play for Spain in a Davis Cup match against Belgium if "they want me to play."

Typical Nadal. Even after all he accomplished last year, he still qualifies his remarks about the Davis Cup as though Spain might suddenly decide he's not one of its best options. That's one of the reasons that the term "sportsman of the year" applies to Nadal -- not just for what he accomplished on the court but his demeanor off of it.

The Laureus Awards are a kind of Academy Awards for sports, recognizing global achievement. The awards don't get much attention in the United States because they tend to ignore American-centric sports such as the NFL and Major League Baseball. But they're a big deal globally, which is why Nadal left his rehabilitation in Mallorca to show up at the world's most expensive hotel (the cost to build the Emirates Palace is an estimated $3 billion) to play ping-pong on stage with show host Kevin Spacey.

The awards tend to bring out the best in athletes, who all recognize the bigger context of the mission. The glitzy show raises attention and funds for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which runs more than 80 projects around the world, using sports as a tool for social betterment. The weekend in Abu Dhabi was full of examples of the work the foundation does, bringing soccer to the slums of Nairobi, or boxing to favelas in Brazil.

The awards are voted on by the Laureus Academy, a group of more than 40 sports stars that includes champions from almost every sport.

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"It's an honor to be part of this small group of sportsmen and sportswomen," Nadal said.

Nadal was honored by Laureus in 2006 as the Newcomer of the Year, an award that golfer Martin Kaymer won on Monday night. Nadal's rise over the past four years to the top spot in the world has been dramatic. That is to everyone except Nadal.

He lives in the same house in Manacor on Mallorca with his family, has the same friends, the same hobbies. As Sports Illustrated noted last month, he still flies coach. Though he has a new underwear advertising campaign with Armani, he insists that he's not a sex symbol.

"I don't feel like this for sure, no," he said.

And holding three Grand Slam titles hasn't changed him much.

"I'm a little bit more famous than the world," he said. "But seriously if you come to Manacor and you" -- he interrupted himself to ask a colleague for help with a translation -- "you spy me, you would know 100 percent I have a really, really normal life."

The term "sportsman" can often best be defined in defeat. Nadal proved that in Melbourne, when he kept playing despite the injury.

"I try my best, even though I knew I wasn't able to win," he said. "That's part of sport. That's what I had to do for the fans, for the tournament, for myself, for my opponent. But I was crying in the locker from when I finish Australia. I'm still hungry. My motivation is to be a better player every year."

He's motivated but also wants to enjoy what he's accomplished. He seemed to be doing that on Monday.

"I have to enjoy the moment because it's not always going to be like this," he said.

Nadal's countrymen -- the Spanish soccer team -- were named the team of the year Monday night. Nadal is a passionate soccer fan and has even become a shareholder in Real Mallorca, which has been struggling financially. He was asked if he could to choose only one, would he want his own success or for Spain to win the World Cup? He looked at his questioner in disbelief.

"This kind of question," he said. "What would you choose?"

The questioner -- a Spanish reporter -- said he'd rather see Spain win the World Cup.

"Of course, me too," Nadal said.