NADAL joins a breed of versatile all-courters

REUTERS

In some ways, it is strange that the man expected to win the French Open this year is but a mere lad of 18, who, ironically enough, owing to a mix of circumstances, has still to contest a single point at Roland Garros. And yet, the story of Rafae l Nadal is the story of post-modern tennis, a sport that is getting younger and more focussed by the year, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

EVERY year, in the hot, humid weeks preceding the French Open, a clear statistical trend usually begins to emerge from the first flood of results reported from tennis tournaments played on dirty mud-red surfaces across the continent. Always, a couple of players break out from the pack and slip-and-slide away to victory at such events; these are, in due process, anointed favourites to win the second Slam of the calendar year.

Last year, for example, Guillermo Coria was considered unstoppable on clay, and before arriving in Paris had lost only to Roger Federer in Hamburg, in a major clay event. The Argentine reached the final in some style, losing only one set along the way. A mysterious bout of cramps midway through the third set subsequently prevented him from shutting Gaston Gaudio out in the final. Coria's performance during that painful five-set loss must rank alongside McEnroe's infamous choke in the 1984 French Open final.

This year, it appears Rafael Nadal will slip seamlessly into Coria's role as the safest bet: such is his form, not even Federer seems capable of putting an end to the rampage. The Swiss world number one, certainly a favourite at any other point, might need to retain his patience for another year.

Nadal won back-to-back Masters in Monte Carlo and Rome in April and in the first week of May, and has since risen to a career high ranking of number five; although a blister on his palm forced him to pull out of Hamburg recently, it has by no means put him out of contention in Paris.

In some ways, it is strange that the man expected to win the French this year is but a stripling — a lad, whose physique has matured quicker than his features or his mind; a mere boy of 18, who, ironically enough, owing to a mix of circumstances, has still to contest a single point at Roland Garros. And yet, the story of Rafael Nadal is the story of post-modern tennis, a sport that is getting younger and more focussed by the year.

Nadal started training with his uncle at age five, and won his first pro match at 15 to become only the ninth player in the Open Era to win an ATP game before turning 16. He was ATP's newcomer of the year in 2003, after moving up nearly 200 positions to finish in the top 50, for the first time in his career.

He was one of only six players in the whole of 2004 to beat Roger Federer (at the Nasdaq-100), but a stress fracture ruptured his plans for the next three months, and once again forced him to miss the French Open — the year before he had injured his elbow in practices prior to the tournament. Things began to look up in August though, when he captured his first ATP title in Sopot; and then, in December, came Nadal's finest moment hitherto, as he beat Andy Roddick to help Spain beat U.S. 3-2 in the Davis Cup final.

At the moment, the prodigiously gifted left-hander has a slightly dubious serve that unfailingly tends to crumble at those crucial moments when he desperately needs a couple of aces. On a faster surface like grass, he would probably struggle to get past the second or third round against a decent opponent. But on clay, where the ball upon bouncing is robbed of much of its pace anyway, Nadal flourishes particularly since his biggest strength lies in the punch and accuracy of his groundstrokes.

Against Federer in the Nasdaq-100 Open final last month, the Spaniard fully exploited the so-called left-hander's advantage and dominated the first two sets by employing his whippy forehand to push the ball uncomfortably high over Federer's left shoulder. Not for nothing is it said that Federer possesses the finest all-round game in the history of men's tennis; but with virtually no opportunity to attack even he could have done no better than to just slice it defensively and keep the ball in play, while hoping that his opponent would commit the first blunder.

Federer got away in the end after Nadal choked, but the latter will be richer for the experience.

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As for the rest of Federer's competition, one sees Andy Roddick working away diligently on his backhand slice, in order to supplement his limited arsenal of service bombs and forehand missiles. That willingness to develop a new skill is admirable, but all the same, it seems awfully unlikely that Roddick will win another Slam. Marat Safin, easily the most gifted player of his generation, endured an erratic year in 2004; and while he won the Australian Open in rousing fashion this January, he has since lapsed into that now familiar habit of mediocrity. Meanwhile Lleyton Hewitt had a good 2004 season — that's in comparison with most players — but he was, of course, helpless against Federer.

Nadal's performance against Federer in Miami — on a hardcourt, too; not his favourite clay surface — suggests that the next credible challenger to the imperial Swiss will not step forth from the ranks of his contemporaries, that it is in fact the likes of Nadal and the French teenagers, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, who might eventually get the measure of the four-time (and counting) Grand Slam champion.

Nadal's performance at the French Open over the next fortnight or so could have a significant bearing on the shape of things to come.

Unlike, say, the Australian Open, this isn't a tournament for a dime-a-dozen surprises. Players understandably tend to be rusty at the start of the year, which is why the roster of champions at Melbourne is dotted with variety; but by the time they move on to Europe they have more or less acclimatised themselves to hard courts. The challenge then lies in adapting quickly to a different surface. Form inevitably plays a significant role going into Roland Garros, so it is reasonable to expect Nadal to at least breeze into the quarterfinal stages, unmolested.

Again, unlike the Australian, the French is the climax to the surface season. The clay-court spell sprawls over practically the entire stretch of the year, from February to October, but the French Open is the most prestigious event of its kind.

Like Wimbledon, Roland Garros retains a certain quaint charm. Its flavour is compellingly Parisian. For many its allure is inextricably linked to heartbreak: although they came close, some of the greatest players in the history of the game — Sampras, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, to name only a few — never managed to win at Roland Garros.

Through the 90s, clay court tournaments were viewed as the personal domain of the so-called surface specialists, who, for the most part, spilled out from the interiors of Spain. In Sampras's time, a tennis player could in theory, avoid playing the seven-time Wimbledon champion altogether, and still earn enough points from the desperate free-for-all ensuing at major clay events (where it was very unlikely that Sampras would last three rounds; a detail that triggered in many the keen desperation to win) to figure among the top 10.

Federer's evident ease on a clay court appears to have put an end to that comfortable existence. Albert Costa won the French Open in 2002, and he could well be the last clay specialist to do so for a while.

The era of specialists is slowly drawing to a close, as a movement it is all but dead — a fact recognised by players like Gustavo Kuerten, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Coria (and now Nadal too) who have all adapted successfully to other surfaces.

This could even herald the dawn of a new counter-movement, that of a breed of versatile all-courters. The most ambitious of this bunch is (it would appear) unquestionably Nadal, the 18 year-old French Open debutant-hopeful, who, when queried recently about his greatest ambition, replied sombrely and with some dignity:

"I want to win Wimbledon."