Nadal focuses on serve for French debut

When critics turn to a player's serve, they often touch a nerve, so it is refreshing that the 18-year-old Rafael Nadal owns up to the weakness in his otherwise powerhouse game.

Already among the favourites as he prepares for his first French Open, Nadal, a hero of Spain's triumph against the United States in the Davis Cup final last year, and able to push the mighty Roger Federer to within two points of defeat at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Key Biscayne two weeks ago, is willing to talk about his flawed delivery.

"I need to practise my serve a lot," Nadal agreed yesterday after taking only an hour to despatch Belgium's Xavier Malisse, 6-0, 6-3, in advancing to the third round of the Monte Carlo Masters. "I can serve powerfully," he added, "but I need to build confidence in practice to have a good serve in matches."

Nadal is aware that a wicked serve can give a left-hander a particular advantage when delivered to a right-hander's backhand in the left-hand court. "I know, because I have the slice," he said. "I return well, so it is important to improve my serve to secure the match."

Considering that he missed his preferred clay-court season last year because of a stress fracture to his left ankle, Nadal is maturing impressively, with a world ranking of No 17. Malisse, ranked 38th, won his first ATP title in Delray Beach, Florida, two months ago, and before yesterday he had a 22-6 winning record against left-handers. The Belgian did well to glean nine points against Nadal in the opening set.

Filippo Volandri was not best pleased when his serve was criticised by the president of the Italian Tennis Federation, Angelo Binaghi, last week. Binaghi's words were hardly diplomatic, especially as Italy are due to play a Davis Cup-tie against Morocco in Rome in two weeks' time.

Yesterday, however, the Italian No 1 was in good form, on and off the court. He defeated the ninth-seeded Guillermo Canas, of Argentina, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, and then confirmed he would still represent his country against Morocco.

Guillermo Coria, of Argentina, the defending champion, who has won 60 of his 67 clay-court matches in the last two years, has looked in good shape in his first two matches this season on the red stuff. Having defeated one Frenchman, Paul-Henri Mathieu, in straight sets in the opening round, he beat another, Thierry Ascione, a qualifier, yesterday, 6-2, 6-1.

"We still have to see how he's going to play against someone stronger than I am," Ascione said, "but during our match he didn't make more than six unforced errors. What happens to you in those circumstances is that you feel ridiculous."

Juan Carlos Ferrero, of Spain, a winner here and also at the French Open in 2003, continued to shows signs of regaining that kind of form yesterday, defeating Jiri Novak, of the Czech Republic, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, to reach the third round. Ferrero now faces a stern test against Marat Safin, of Russia, the Australian Open champion.

Safin, the second seed, needed only 64 minutes to defeat Cyril Saulnier, of France, in the second round, 6-3, 6-1. Roger Federer, the top seed, was even quicker than Safin, beating Albert Montanes, of Spain, 6-3, 6-4, in 59 minutes.

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