Champion worth admiring

Rafael Nadal's quickness, and his outrageous arm strength, allows him to alter the rhythm of a rally uniquely and abruptly, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Rafael Nadal does not throw his racket, he has merely been creating one on clay. The fuss about him is understandable: no one in the history of the men's tennis tour has won 72 consecutive matches on anything: hardcourt, grass, carpet, or their cement driveway against their six-year-old daughter.

Seventy-two wins (and perhaps growing at the Italian Open as you read this) is tennis' new sacred number. John McEnroe won 65 straight on carpet, Federer whipped 56 fellows in succession on hardcourt, and the Swiss is also presently maintaining a 48-match streak on grass.

Seventy-two (over two years and including 12 tournament wins on clay) is not just tennis' longest surface streak, but possibly the hardest. Because on this grainy loose surface that clogs pores and elevates laundry bills, where friction with the clay de-accelerates the ball, no point comes without paying a substantial physical price.

No hurried serve-volley style will suffice here. No free-swinging winner from the baseline after two shots can consistently end a rally. No Agassi-inspired return of serve can abruptly put a full stop to a point. No, here points need construction, building, planning. This is the architect's surface. As the old joke goes, sometimes points are won twice on clay, what would be a winner elsewhere is run down and the dialogue resumes.

All this tells us something interesting. That Nadal has been disciplined, patient, consistent, controlled, day after day, on 72 occasions, dedicated to his craft. A man must be uncommonly driven to allow himself no off days on a surface where matches are measured not in minutes but in shirts changed. Manhood for Spaniards is apparently measured in sweat.

Rafael Nadal has claimed 20 tournaments and two Grand Slam titles before his 21st birthday on June 2. Roger Federer had won three titles and no Slams before his 21st birthday. Nadal will never be Federer, who is considered potentially the greatest player ever. But it's a fun statistic. More pertinently, Nadal may never even be Bjorn Borg on clay, who with six French Open titles in eight appearances is the benchmark for this tantalising surface.

Claycourters are a cult within a religion, a sect within a sport, who play a different game to the same rules. Admittedly, for a while in the 1970s and 1980s it was tennis' humdrum surface, and Vitas Gerulaitis once said: "Tennis is going to be very boring and we'll have a draw of 128 Borgs". This, even to disciples of the Swede, was a disquieting thought.

Borg, Vilas, Wilander, Lendl were magnificent technicians, but on clay, with their long, slow, high, loopy groundstrokes, their tennis dulled the brain. The author Michael Mewshaw described one French Open match of that era of having "all the acoustical excitement of a leaky faucet: plop-plop, plop-plop, plop-plop". The opening four points of the Vilas-Wilander final of 1982 went 154 shots. Wines can mature in that time.

But larger, faster players, using rackets like giant saucepans made out of material borrowed from NASA, helped change the clay game and our minds. Faster balls helped, too, says Ramesh Krishnan, who remembers playing the French team on clay in the 1993 Davis Cup using aptly named Racing Dunlop balls, which he describes as "much lighter than what Borg would play with".

Soon Jim Courier was hitting the ball harder than before on clay, Andre Agassi attacked, Gustavo Kuerten duelled aggressively, moon balling disappeared, drop shots were frequent, players added pace and subtracted spin one shot, then subtracted pace and added spin another. Clay court tennis was like doing sudoku, but at 100 kmph. Nadal plays it like some form of muscular chess.

On this intriguing surface if you cannot slide like an ice skater, please don't apply. If you are averse to hatching plots, then don't show up. If you think patience is a virtue known only to mothers and don't own a forehand that kicks like bad whisky, then feign an injury. If you haven't got strong shoulders, an advanced degree in geometry and lungs that would impress Abebe Bikila, then take a brief holiday. If you want to qualify as the greatest player ever, you need to pass this examination.

Nadal's record is four French Opens shorter than Borg, yet he has taken the clay court game further than any player. No one has ever owned his combination of speed, spin, angle, balance, footwork, intensity, defence, attack. That he runs down balls like a hunting dog after a shot bird is breathtaking, yet not unusual to clay-courters. That his lefty spin is downright hurtful is known, too, for it curls and bounces into the less-damaging backhand of right-handers.

Of the small mountain of things Nadal does superbly on clay, let us settle for three. The first is his force of passion; if you put on the television and watch Nadal, so zealous is his attitude that you might think his opponent has just said something about his sister. He is a lunging master class in commitment. Because he invests himself in every point and is willing to earn it, then to take the point from him the opponent must do at least the same.

Secondly, Nadal's quickness, and his outrageous arm strength, allows him to alter the rhythm of a rally uniquely and abruptly; he may be eight feet behind the baseline, at full sprint and seemingly at full defensive stretch, yet he can with a flick of his lumberjack's wrist hit deep and hard and suddenly be the one on attack. It is dis-spiriting, it makes opponents push harder, hit deeper, try more than they are capable of.

Thirdly, Nadal is committed to improvement, saying earlier this year in his fractured English: "Well, for improve, my game, I need play a little more aggressive with my forehand, especially serve a little bit better, go to the volley sometimes, improve little bit the slice, improve a little bit the backhand. Just try to play a little bit more harder with the forehand, more aggressive, the mentality more aggressive."

It was not all talk. After months of indifferent form after skating to the Wimbledon final, he won the hard court event at Indian Wells, with a flatter more punishing forehand, with an attitude that saw him seeking the offensive, and Andy Roddick, who he flattened en route to that title in California, said: "He wasn't only hitting his hook forehand to the backhand, but the shot that he was killing me with, he was just cracking it up the line, from his forehand. I haven't seen that one a lot from him lately. So it did surprise me a little bit, yeah."

This willingness to be more forceful has increased his lethality on clay, allowing him to both suffocate players and bulldoze them. This year he has played Monte Carlo and Barcelona on clay, not lost a set, not even been taken to a tie-breaker. Players must ask themselves ruefully, how do you hurt Nadal? Where do you hurt him?

Eventually the streak will end, because of injury or exhaustion, because he has an off day, or because Federer stays committed to attacking the net and just edges him one brilliant day. How wonderful that to beat this Spaniard, the Swiss, the most gifted player we have ever seen, is being forced to become even better.

It will take some work, for Nadal on clay is that unusual beast, he is not fearful of Federer who he leads 5-0 on the surface. He is also, for all his sleeveless intimidating shirt, Red Indian bandanna, violent fist pumps, demonstrative manner, a player in complete command of himself, a competitor of icy purpose.

And we see that in his refusal to throw his racket. It doesn't work, he explains. "Just the better thing is try to continue with good concentration all time and have the control of yourself." He does, and at only 20, clay court tennis has a champion with a game and maturity worth admiring.

NADAL TOPS

The King of Clay ruled in this oddest of matches between the two best players in tennis.

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (10) — in an exhibition match in Palma de Mallores, Balearic Islands, on May 3 — on a half-grass, half-clay court when the top-ranked Swiss failed to reach a forehand that took a funny bounce across the green side.

"We're used to playing long, hard games with a lot of tension involved," Federer said. "So it's fun to play on this half-grass, half-clay surface."

Nadal came into the match with a record 72 straight wins on clay. Federer hasn't lost on grass in four years — a 48-match run that includes four straight Wimbledon titles.

"It was a long match, with many changes of pace and with little time to adapt," Nadal said. "My feet are suffering as a price of having to adapt to the grass."

Federer was leading 4-1 in the tiebreaker before Nadal rallied. After the Spaniard double-faulted while ahead 6-5 the players traded match points. Nadal then hit three of the final four winners from the clay side before a sellout crowd of about 7,000.

The grass caused some tricky bounces, especially as the match progressed. But both players showed little difficulty in switching surfaces, as they changed shoes at changeovers.

The grounds crew had to rip up and relay the grass court, which cost $1.63 million and had taken 19 days to prepare.

After the players split the first two sets, the jokes dissipated and both players went for the win. Nadal displayed his trademark fist-pump for the first time after Federer's forehand landed long on the clay for a 4-3 lead. Both players held serve to force the tiebreaker, with Nadal dominating the baseline and Federer the net.

Nadal, who has won three straight titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, held a 4-0 lead over Federer on clay. Federer is 1-0 against the Spaniard on grass. Nadal leads the series with Federer 7-3.

Nadal, serving from clay to start, won the first point of the match after a rally of groundstrokes ended with Federer hitting his forehand into the net. Another Federer shot into the net, a backhand, gave the Spaniard the first game.

Nadal broke first in the fourth game on grass then watched Federer net a forehand as the Spaniard held from the clay for a 4-1 lead. Federer rallied to 4-4 after a break of his own before Nadal lashed a crosscourt forehand winner for a 5-4 advantage before breaking Federer again in the 12th game for the set.

Federer bounced back in the second, breaking Nadal on his second try from the green side. Federer's one break while returning on grass was enough for the 10-time Grand Slam champion to prevail in the second.

Both players were eager to do this again next year.

"It was a fun way to pass 2-1/2 hours," Nadal said.