Nadal looms as ‘Man of Clay’

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MIAMI – Rafael Nadal already has done at age 19 something nobody in men’s tennis has been able to do – penetrate Roger Federer’s psyche. Beginning today at the French Open, the left-handed Spaniard with the bulging biceps is poised to make a more tangible mark in tennis history.

With a first-round win over Robin Soderling, defending champion Nadal will break Argentine Guillermo Vilas’ record of 53 straight victories on clay, a record that stood unchallenged for three decades. Nadal tied the record in Rome two weeks ago with a five-hour, five-set epic victory over Federer in the Italian Open final – his fifth victory in six matches against the world No. 1.

After that match, Nadal told reporters, “Every week I keep thinking this is the week that I lose, but I am lucky to keep winning.”

Luck might have something to do with it, but it probably has much more to do with Nadal’s powerful game, will to win, tireless work rate and tricky left-handed shots that bewilder even the otherwise unbeatable Federer.

The closest anyone had come to Vilas’ record was Bjorn Borg’s 46 straight clay wins from 1977 to 1979 and Thomas Muster’s streak of 40 clay wins in 1995.

Muster also had the fifth-longest streak with 38 straight wins from 1995 to 1996.

Of course, none of the men comes close to approaching what Chris Evert did on clay. She won 125 consecutive clay matches from August 1973 to May 1979, the longest win streak on any surface by men or women. It finally was ended by Tracy Austin in the semifinals of the Italian Open.

Evert won 24 clay tournaments during her streak and wound up with seven French Open titles by the end of her career.

“It’s overwhelmingly difficult to do what Nadal is doing,” said Jane Forman, a former pro player who runs a tennis academy in Florida. “The competition is so steep today, and there are so many clay-court specialists.”

“To be able to sustain what he’s doing is supernatural. And what Chrissy did is even more astronomical.

“I mean, everyone talks about how great the Heat is, but they didn’t win 125 games in a row. The level of intensity required to keep a streak like that going is hard to explain. I don’t know another streak in sports today that’s equal.”

Television analyst Mary Carillo said long win streaks are badges worn by the most mentally tough players.

“Whenever Chris is asked to put her career in perspective, she always says she’s most proud of her consistency, and that’s what these streaks are about,” Carillo said. “Consistency is the hardest thing to achieve in anything, sports and life. What Nadal has done, what Borg and Muster did, and what Chris did for a much longer period of time, is remarkable, and to do it on clay makes me respect it even more because it is so physically tough to play on that surface.

“It is the greatest test of character in tennis, and Chris did it better than anyone in history. She didn’t lose on the stuff for seven years. Seven years. Think about it.”

Forman said of all the players of her era, the one she feared most was Evert.

“I feared Chrissy way more than even Martina Navratilova,” she said. “Chrissy made you look bad. She was so mentally tough, she’d wear you down to nothing. Navratilova was more flashy, but you could win a few points against her. Chrissy gave you nothing. She made you miss. She was viewed by the public as a darling, but she was no darling on the court. She is one of the strongest mental players in the history of the sport.”

TRUE GRIT

Though he refuses to compare himself to legends such as Borg, Nadal has showed in his short time on the men’s tour that he has nerves of steel and the ability to go down as one of the grittiest players in recent history.

“Nadal is still a teenager, and that’s what makes this streak all the more remarkable,” TV analyst and U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. “For him to display that kind of consistency, focus, determination and intensity at his age is truly impressive. There are so many good clay-courters out there, and he has separated himself on clay, with Federer a close second. He has been bullying his way through guys. He is one of the most physically imposing players in recent history, and he brutalizes guys. He gives nothing away. It’s one body blow after another, and by the last set, most guys are beaten down.”

Somebody will stop Nadal’s streak. Austin said that when she halted Evert’s record, she didn’t immediately realize the significance of the victory. She was 16, and all she cared about was beating Evert. The streak was the last thing on her mind.

“Back then, I don’t remember people making a huge deal about Chris’ streak, or maybe I was just too young and focused to pay attention,” Austin said. “I knew she hadn’t lost in seven years, but when I faced her at that Italian Open, I wasn’t thinking about any streak. I just wanted to win the match. I remember I was down 4-2 in the third set, and I was exhausted by the end. It took deep will within me to beat Chris that day. And we were playing with wooden rackets. It was a very, very long match.

“It’s hard to believe, thinking back on it, that Chris was able to win every match on clay for seven years. That just shows what kind of fighter she was. And Nadal has that same mentality. I love his guts. And it’s going to take someone with those same guts to beat him. Roger is getting close. It should be a great French Open.”



(c) 2006, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

Rafael Nadal

AP-NY-05-27-06 2005EDT


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