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August 27,2006 USA Today
Nadal's passion should play well

by Douglas Robson
NEW YORK - For a kid used to the carefree cadence of soft Mediterranean breezes, Rafael Nadal seems ill-equipped for the chaos of New York.

His performance at the U.S. Open - a third-round showing last year is his best result - supports that premise.

But once the indefatigable force from the Spanish island of Mallorca sets his sights on a prize, conventional wisdom doesn't necessarily apply. Consider Nadal's gallop to the 2006 Wimbledon final on grass, a surface pundits predicted would bedevil the 20-year-old king of clay for several years to come.

Brace yourself, New York. Nadal has his eyes trained on the U.S. Open.

"I want to play good in the U.S. Open, no?" Nadal said after his four-set loss to Roger Federer at July's All England Club final.

"When I (started) the season," he reiterated Saturday, "I always was thinking about this tournament. Last year I played my worst tournament (of) the year here, and this year I want to change that."

Nadal tweaked his summer schedule to peak in New York, playing fewer events to stay fresh and remaining in North America to train and practice.

"It is important to play well at the big events," he says, "and the one in New York is big, very big."

Even so, Nadal concedes it takes a certain mental maturity to conquer Queens. His Popeye biceps and on-court precociousness notwithstanding, the 6-1 southpaw is still very much an adolescent.

At news conferences, he often fiddles with his cellphone (or whatever is in reach) and occasionally jumps out of his chair to illustrate certain points when his limited but improving English lacks the requisite vocabulary.

A homebody who is coached by his uncle, Tony, and who remains hermetically close to his tightknit family, Nadal spent the weeks after Wimbledon fishing and going out with friends in his hometown of Manacor. His big outing? A weekend trip to Disneyland Paris with his family.

"Manacor is, for me, the best place in the world," Nadal says. "I have all my friends there and enjoy every minute when I am there. It is hard (to leave), but at the same time I am doing what I love, what I have a passion for, which is to play competitive tennis."

Despite the happy-go-lucky rhythms of his hometown, on the court Nadal is more hurricane than gentle island zephyr. With flowing dark hair tucked behind a bandana, skin-hugging sleeveless shirts and medium-length pirate pants, he looks like a marauder swept in off the high seas.

That bold attire, combined with a kinetic playing style laden with leaping fist-pumps, shouts of "Vamos!" and never-say-die attitude, should sell well in the Big Apple.

"Nadal's energy will suit the New York crowd," four-time Grand Slam champion Jim Courier says. "People like to see blood, sweat and guts on the court. He lets you in like very few players do."

Nadal agrees that New York suits his professional persona, if not his eye-averting off-court personality.

"People (in the USA) show passion for things, and I love that," says Nadal, who responded via e-mail. "It is one of my favorite cities in the world. I think it has the vibes."

New Yorkers like winners. If Nadal intends to generate the vibes for fans, he will have to bring his "A" game.

Continued success

The world No. 2 has put together another terrific season, winning five titles and capturing a second consecutive Grand Slam in Paris. But he has been shaky since arriving in North America this summer.

At the Toronto Masters, Nadal, the defending champ, fell in the round of 16 to 14th-ranked Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic 1-6, 6-3, 2-6, only the second time this season Nadal has departed before the quarterfinals. A week later in the Cincinnati area tournament, he lost to unseeded Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-3) in the last eight. It marked the only time in 2006 Nadal has failed to reach at least the semifinals in consecutive tournaments.

"He's struggling a little bit," says ESPN commentator and U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who believes the month-long break after Wimbledon was too long for a grinding player such as Nadal. "He needs to play a lot of matches and hit a lot of balls."

Observers also have noted a few fissures in the Mallorcan's usually rock-solid game, particularly on hardcourts.

On clay his topspin shots bounce higher, and he has more time to use his athleticism to fend off attackers. On the cement he sometimes lingers too far behind the baseline, allowing opponents to exploit his poor position. His backhand slice is less effective, and aggressive foes who take the ball on the rise, such as American James Blake, who has beaten him twice on hardcourts, can make Nadal look uncomfortable.

"On a relatively quick court, he's vulnerable," McEnroe says.

Still, it would be unfair to count Nadal as anything but a serious contender, just as it would be inaccurate to label him a clay-court specialist. His two French Open crowns and record 60-match winning streak on dirt aside, Nadal is no one-surface wonder. He owns two Masters Series titles on fast surfaces, and he knocked off Federer on cement in the final at Dubai this year - one of four victories vs. one loss against the Swiss No. 1 in 2006.

"Rafael has not just been successful on (clay), he's been successful on everything," says No. 5 Blake, the top-ranked American.

In London, Nadal illustrated his ability to adapt. With fewer than 10 matches on grass as a pro, he made almost daily and dramatic improvements in each round.

"I changed a few things, such as the grip and a few others, especially the way to move and receive the ball," Nadal says. "I also learned that I can do well on grass."

If Federer is the balletic Baryshnikov, Nadal's physics-defying athletic gifts are of a different nature. Nadal is bullish and demonstrative; his forte lies in a hunger to retrieve ball after ball, a skill that can wear down opponents on any surface.

"To win a point against him, you have to hit the ball really good two, three or four times," says compatriot Ferrero, the 2003 French Open champ and a former No. 1.

Offense and defense

Nor does Nadal play defense at the expense of offense, which is why, unlike many clay-court phenoms, he has been able to make the transition to faster surfaces. He can impose his slingshot topspin forehand and blast winners from all over the court. He can surprise opponents by flattening out his double-fisted backhand and whacking it down the line. He can sneak into the net and knock off volleys.

"What you have seen the last couple years is always that he's very quick, gets a lot of balls back, and once in a while he does some phenomenal shots," says Germany's Tommy Haas, who lost to Nadal at Cincinnati two weeks ago. "When you think actually you're going to get an easy ball back, he seems to come up with an incredible winner or passing shot. That's what makes him (unbelievably) difficult."

Nadal has shown he can bounce back from adversity. Published allegations that were unconfirmed linking him to investigations surrounding this year's Tour de France doping scandal haven't affected his tunnel vision. He emerged from a post-Wimbledon car accident unharmed and has been handling the local media crush centered on his Mallorcan girlfriend with aplomb. Nor has the foot injury that kept him out of the Australian Open in January derailed his position at No. 2 in the world.

He's also maintained his sense of humor. Asked to assess his summer season since Wimbledon, Nadal cracked up the news corps Saturday by saying he'd played "unbelievable" and had "very good wins" during his month off in Mallorca.

Nadal is characteristically forthright about his desire to succeed in New York. He wants to shine so he can win over American audiences.

"I don't think I have any special pressure," says Nadal, who believes last year's decision to return home between Montreal and New York contributed to his third-round loss to Blake. A fast learner, Nadal chose to stay in the USA despite the extra time his early defeats this month afforded.

Besides, he argues, with two-time defending champ Federer (whose 55-match winning streak on North American hardcourts ended at Cincinnati) so far ahead of the field, everyone is an underdog. His goal is to improve.

"Roger is the great favorite," he says. "I hope I can do well, but if not, I hope I continue my learning process."

 
 
email: doug@douglasrobson.com