The new king of all England
Rafael Nadal started his tennis life as a clay-court specialist, but has made remarkable and remorseless progress on grass. And now, despite Roger Federer's complete dominance at Wimbledon, the time is right for a regime change, writes Paul Newman
Saturday 21 June 2008
The fishing rods have been put away and are unlikely to come out again for another fortnight. Rafael Nadal has bigger fish to fry. After the briefest of fishing and golfing breaks on his home island of Mallorca following his victory in the Artois Championships at Queen's Club last Sunday, the 22-year-old Spaniard was back in London yesterday putting the final touches to his game in readiness for the start of Wimbledon next week.
Two years ago Nadal proved he was more than a dirt-track bully by reaching his first final at the All England Club before losing in four sets to Roger Federer. Twelve months ago the game's two best players met on the same stage and treated the Centre Court crowd to one of its greatest finals before Federer triumphed in the fifth set.
The bookmakers make the world No 1 the favourite again this year, but logic might point to a different conclusion. Federer, who has not recovered his best form since going down with glandular fever six months ago, has already lost eight matches this year (three more than in the whole of 2006), was beaten in straight sets in the semi-finals of the Australian Open by Novak Djokovic and suffered the heaviest defeat of his 173-match Grand Slam career when he managed to win only four games in the final of the French Open 13 days ago.
His conqueror in Paris? Nadal, who has now won 11 of their 17 matches and is on a run of form phenomenal even by his own standards. The world No 2's only defeat in his last six tournaments came when blisters left him barely able to step out of his hotel bed in Rome last month. With five titles already to his name this year and nearly $4m (about £2m) in prize money, Nadal has bettered Djokovic's flying start to 2008 to become the most successful player of the season so far.
Manuel Santana, who is the only Spanish man ever to have won at the All England Club, watched in awe last weekend as Nadal, using his sliced backhand and varying the pace of his shots like a grass-court veteran, became the first of his countrymen to win an ATP tournament on the surface for 36 years.
"I don't understand why people call him the king of clay," the 1966 champion said. "Sure, nobody can match him on clay, but there's much more to him than that. He's a great player on all surfaces and when I hear people question whether he can play on grass I just say: 'Look at his record. You don't get to two Wimbledon finals by the age of 21 if you can't play on grass.' I'm sure he can win Wimbledon this year. Even if he doesn't his time will come. Next year Roger will be 27 and Rafa will still be only 23."
Winning Wimbledon is one thing, but to lift the greatest prize in tennis in the same year as winning the French Open is another. Clay and grass present significantly different technical challenges, while the physical and mental demands of winning Wimbledon, which starts just a fortnight after Paris, are too much for most. The fact that both Federer and Nadal have come close in the last two years – the Spaniard has beaten the Swiss in the Roland Garros final three years in succession – shows what a golden age men's tennis is enjoying.
The last man to claim the Paris-Wimbledon double was Bjorn Borg, who did it three years in a row between 1978 and 1980. Since then the only player who has won both titles (not in the same year) is Andre Agassi.
Borg has watched as Federer and Nadal have matched and broken so many of his Grand Slam records and he now expects the latter to emulate his double feat of 28 years ago. The Swede even rates Djokovic a greater threat than Federer. "For Roger to beat those guys at Wimbledon he needs to play much better than he did last summer," Borg said. "He knows he will have to play some unbelievable tennis to win again."
From the moment Nadal was given his first racket at four years old by his uncle, Toni, who is now his coach, the youngster was on course for greatness. A junior prodigy, he turned down overtures from his national federation to train in Barcelona and stayed instead on his native Mallorca. At 15 he won his first Tour-level match and two days after his 19th birthday claimed the first of his four French Opens.
Having inherited great natural strength and athletic ability (another uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, played football for Barcelona and Spain), his physical qualities have helped him become all but unbeatable on his favourite surface.
While his four Grand Slam titles have been won only on clay, Nadal has proved that he can beat the best on any surface, even if playing on hard courts has contributed to recurring knee problems. His all-round game has improved significantly – he has won indoor and outdoor Masters series titles on hard courts – while his victory at Queen's, following his two Wimbledon finals, confirmed a growing liking for grass.
Andy Murray is impressed by Nadal's consistently high level of performance. "As you saw at the French, even Federer struggles to play at the level Nadal is playing at," he said. "He basically plays like that the whole time. He never drops down from that level. He's so intense and he's so fit that he's able to do it. Djokovic and Federer can sometimes definitely play better than Nadal, but I don't think they maintain it for as long a period of time as he does."
Santana sees several areas in which Nadal's grass-court game has improved. "He attacks the ball much more," Santana said. "His serve is much better. As a left-hander he's really started to develop the serve that swings away to the right-hander's backhand. His return of serve has also improved a lot, particularly on the backhand. You could see that in the way he returned against [Ivo] Karlovic, who has one of the biggest serves out there.
"His volleys have improved, but I don't see that as crucial. Remember, players like Borg, [Lleyton] Hewitt and Agassi all won Wimbledon without having great volleys. Borg had a wonderful Wimbledon record but he won his matches playing largely from the baseline. As long as Rafa's serving well and returning well I don't think he needs to get to the net too often. He might still not be able to volley like a Federer or a [Pete] Sampras, but that doesn't matter."
Murray described Nadal's movement on the grass last week as "awesome". John McEnroe, who will be back at Wimbledon commentating for the BBC, believes the change from moving on clay, where players can slide into their shots, to the much more unpredictable grass, is one of the biggest challenges in tennis.
"Obviously Borg made this transition, but you didn't know how well Nadal would make it," McEnroe said. "It turns out that he likes the movement on grass almost as much as clay, and more than hard courts. I think he struggles more on hard courts and physically beats himself up a little bit more on them."
Borg says that Nadal has to make more changes to his game than his main rivals – in particular the Spaniard has to shorten the huge swing on his forehand to cope with the low bounces on grass – but believes that he will go on to win Wimbledon provided he negotiates the early rounds. Andreas Beck is unlikely to threaten in the first round, though Ernests Gulbis, a hard-hitting Latvian, could be a danger in the second.
Santana is amazed by the speed with which modern-day players adapt to grass. In his day there were many more grass-court tournaments throughout the calendar (including the US and Australian Opens), but he always found the transition from French clay to English grass hard to handle.
"I won the French Open in 1961 and 1964, but when I went to Wimbledon I played so badly," he said. "I was terrible on grass. At first I told the newspapers: 'Grass is for cows.' But then, when I realised that what I really wanted was to win Wimbledon, I decided that I'd have to become a cow myself.
"In 1965 and 1966 I decided to miss the French Open. Instead I came over to England to play on grass. I played in small tournaments at places like Bristol and Surbiton as well as at Queen's so that I could improve my game on grass. In those days tennis was dominated by the Anglo-Saxon world and Wimbledon was seen as much more important than the French Open.
"It must help today's players that the grass courts aren't as quick as they used to be, but the way they adjust their game so quickly and cope with the huge physical demands is a great tribute to their skill and fitness. You get the impression that they would cope even if someone asked them to go and play on ice."
Does Nadal fancy himself to win Wimbledon? "Everybody can win," he said. "I can for sure. I've played in two finals. Why shouldn't I be able to win? But there's a long way to go and a lot of work to be done before anybody wins Wimbledon.
"I can only try to be calm, humble and relaxed going into Wimbledon. Right now it's very easy for everybody to say I'm one of the favourites. We'll see next week – or maybe on the second Sunday of Wimbledon – who the favourite will be."
Grass-court education Nadal's progress at SW19
*2003 Lost third round v Paradorn Srichaphan
* 2004 Did not qualify
* 2005 Lost second round v Gilles Müller
* 2006 Federer beat Nadal in the final, 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3
Nadal had beaten Federer in four successive finals in the spring but was quickly swept aside, winning only 12 points in the first set. The Spaniard got back into the match by playing an excellent tie-break in the third set, but Federer took the fourth after racing into a 5-1 lead.
* 2007 Federer beat Nadal in the final, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2
Federer was taken to five sets at Wimbledon for the first time for six years. Nadal led 4-0 in the fourth set and in the decider Federer twice had to come back from 15-40 down on his own serve before making the decisive break in the sixth game.
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