Rome prepares for Nadal arrival at Masters

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The Independent Online

Rafael Nadal was hundreds of miles away in Barcelona, but the conversation inevitably turned to the 21-year-old Spaniard as the world’s leading players prepared for the Masters Series tournament beginning here today.

No player in the history of the game has dominated clay-court tennis in the way that Nadal has for the last four years and he maintained his remarkable run with a 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 victory yesterday over his fellow Spaniard, David Ferrer. It was the 25th tournament victory of his career and his fourth in succession in Barcelona.

The only consolation for Ferrer was that he became the first player to take a set off Nadal in the last fortnight, the world No 2 having opened his 2008 clay-court campaign with his fourth successive title in Monte-Carlo a week earlier. Nadal has now won 103 of his last 104 matches on clay, the only blemish coming 12 months ago, when he was beaten by Roger Federer in the final in Hamburg.

The condensing of the European calendar during an Olympic year has made Nadal’s task even tougher this season, but he shows no signs of letting up. He went straight to Barcelona after Monte-Carlo and now travels here in search of his fourth successive title. He will play his third Masters Series event in the space of a month next week in Hamburg before taking a brief rest in preparation for the French Open, where he will be attempting to claim another fourth successive title.

“I just find it amazing that in every single match he seems to be playing 100 per cent,” Britain’s Andy Murray said here yesterday. “He never seems all that tired, even though I’m sure he’s feeling it a little bit. He’s in great shape physically and mentally he’s unbelievably strong on the surface. To have a run like he’s had, I don’t really see him stopping soon. He doesn’t look like he’s slowing up that much.”

Murray, who could play Nadal in the third round here, said he would relish the chance of taking on the Spaniard. “You go into a match against him on clay with nobody expecting you to win. You just try to play your best game and you try to learn. I’ve practised with him on clay but I’ve never played a match against him on the surface, so it would be a great chance.

“He’s obviously the top player on clay, but as well as Federer there’s a group of players like Djokovic, Nalbandian and Ferrer who aren’t miles behind him. That’s the sort of group of players that I feel I need to try and catch right now. I’m obviously not in the top 10 players in the world on clay, but I feel that I am in the top group on other surfaces.”

Nadal has a bye in the first round here and will then play Juan-Carlos Ferrero or Nicolas Kiefer. Murray, who plays Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in his first match, could await in the third round, followed by James Blake or Carlos Moya in the quarter-finals. Nikolay Davydenko is Nadal’s scheduled semi-final opponent, although Tommy Robredo, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Roddick are also in the Russian’s section of the draw.

Federer said he was not surprised by Nadal’s continuing domination. “You would think there might be question marks at the beginning of the clay-court season. Can he do it all over again? Of course it’s almost impossible to do it all over again, but for Rafa I think nothing is impossible on clay. He’s got such a great game on this surface that I don’t see him having any surprise losses on clay, although the very top guys have a chance. To do it so many years in a row at his age is unbelievable.”

Federer is due to play Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals here, but the Serb said yesterday that he still felt less than 100 per cent, having retired against the world No 1 at the same stage of the Monte-Carlo tournament because he was suffering with tonsillitis.

Djokovic, who is still on antibiotics, said he had been upset at suggestions that he could have carried on playing and only retired because he was losing. “I really didn’t like some of the things that I heard after the match,” Djokovic said. “I’m a professional sportsman and tennis player. Every time I go to the court I try to give 100 per cent and do everything I can to win. That’s what sport is all about.

“Afterwards I went for some tests and they discovered that I had an infection. I’m still trying to recover from that and it’s not easy. I need about a week to recover from it. That was why I was breathing heavily and didn’t recover well after points. I felt really really bad. Maybe I could have carried on for another three, four or five games and finished off the match, but I think everyone saw how I was. I was really having a lot of difficulties and I think I would have been cheating the fans who had paid to see a great semi-final if I had stayed on court.”

He added: “It was hurtful when I heard the media and even some fans saying that I retire every time that I’m losing. I’m very unhappy to have this reputation. I’m a big fighter on the court and I always try to give my maximum.”