05-21-2005, 03:39 AM
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Baptism of fire awaits the kid king of clay
The Spanish 18-year-old Rafael Nadal goes into his first French Open on Monday as favourite but his taste for big-match pressure is well proved
Saturday May 21, 2005
Sunday morning at the Foro Italico in Rome and the 37-year-old Thomas Muster, the 1995 French Open champion and the outstanding clay-court player of his generation with 40 titles, was getting in a little gentle practice before his veterans' Delta Tour of Champions final against Jim Courier.
His hitting partner, dressed in red shorts, a plain white short-sleeved shirt and white baseball cap was a fellow left-hander of no obvious distinction, and who appeared rather stiff in the joints and a touch less than enthusiastic.
Midway through the mildest of rallies Muster looped a backhand short and, with a sudden, uncharacteristically rapid dart forward, the other man whacked a forehand deep into the corner, the ball fizzing and thudding into the advertising hoardings. As he turned he lifted his cap and his long black hair spilled out to shoulder length. It was like suddenly recognising a policeman in civvies. It was Rafael Nadal.
Mention of his name and the image is instant. White pirate length trousers, or clamdiggers as the Americans call them, sleeveless orange shirt, and white bandanna. The 18-year-old Spaniard has taken the tennis world by storm this year, rushing up the rankings to No5 in winning five tournaments, including two Masters Series titles in Monte Carlo and Rome.
He could be forgiven for looking a little jaded as he practised with Muster on the morning of the Italian Open final, for he had just completed a 16-match winning streak on clay. Yet any doubts about his stamina were dismissed that afternoon when, in the most wonderfully dramatic of matches, he defeated Argentina's Guillermo Coria, last year's French Open runner-up, over five sets lasting more than five hours.
"This guy has such a sharp mind. He's so focused on tennis and he so wants to win," said the admiring Muster, who admitted to seeing a mirror image of himself when hitting with Nadal.
"Everything he does turns around tennis and that's exactly the attitude you need."
Muster shares the view, widely held, that Nadal will not merely be a great Spanish player, or a great clay-court player, but one of the world's all-time greats. "What he has is unusual and rare. He has that determination and willpower that singles him out."
The intensity of Nadal's play is almost frightening. His speed around the court is phenomenal, even by the standards of Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, while his forehand is devastating. "Against a right-hander he will kill them with that forehand. They are going to jump out of the stadium," said Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion.
"It's a huge shot," admits Roger Federer, the current world No1 whose own full-powered forehand is a wonder to behold. "Rafael is an outstanding athlete as well and moves totally differently to most players. Yet even on the run he can hit with spin."
"I've not seen another player like him since Boris Becker. He's a real pearl," said Ion Tiriac, who guided the German prodigy in his formative years. That said, there is more of the kid about Nadal than Becker.
Tennis is up to the gills in youngsters who look terrific from the baseline in practice, but what has singled out Nadal, who will be 19 a week next Friday, is his ability to embrace the big occasion at such a young age and with such unfettered exuberance. There are fist pumps, scissors kicks and huge joyous leaps off the ground - though for the most part any overt intimidation is restricted to his shots.
Unlike Hewitt there is nothing of the brat. Nadal's enthusiasm is endearing and, if his steadfast aggression is atypical of Spanish players, then it was integral to his game from an early age. Sergi Bruguera (twice), Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero have all won the French Open title since 1993 but all, in their different ways, have epitomised a somewhat reserved and self-contained persona.
Nadal, in sharp contrast, is outgoing and gregarious. When he beat Andy Roddick to give Spain what proved to be a decisive 2-0 lead in the Davis Cup final last year, Moya sagely remarked: "He's the kind of guy that likes to play these kind of matches. So I really trust him. I believe in him."
His father's brother, Miguel Angel Nadal, was a defender for Spain, for whom the word uncompromising might have been coined (his nickname was the Beast of Barcelona) while his other paternal uncle and coach, Toni, gave "Rafa" his first racket when he was four: "I was a defensive player and not all that successful, so the idea was for Rafael to be aggressive. As it turned out, that style fitted his personality perfectly."
When Nadal was 14, the Spanish federation suggested he move to Barcelona. But his parents declined, wanting to remain involved in their oldest child's education. Staying in his native Majorca meant Nadal received less financial support but his father, a successful businessman, was prepared to pay for training.
At 15, Nadal won his first Tour-level match, beating the Paraguayan veteran Ramon Delgado in the opening round of the ATP event in Majorca in 2002. And so the wheel of success began to spin. There have been setbacks, including elbow and foot injuries that prevented him playing at Roland Garros for the past two years. Now, suddenly, he is this year's French Open favourite without having played there and having not gone beyond the fourth round of any major.
Muster sounds a word of caution. "Now it's the next step. He has to deal with all the pressure of being the favourite and it's a lot for a young brain to cope with. Some players become negative about it, some are very positive. You never know, so that's what we have all still got to see with Rafael. But his potential is just enormous."
Teenage Tennis Champions
Boris Becker As a fresh-faced 17-year-old in 1985 the German won Wimbledon at his second attempt. Retained title the next year and went on to win four more majors but never got beyond the semi-finals of the French.
Bjorn Borg Won the French Open title at the second attempt as an 18-year-old and retained it as a teenager, the second of six triumphs at Roland Garros. Equally at home on grass, he won the Wimbledon title five times, doubling with the French from 1978-80.
Michael Chang Won his only grand slam title, the French, as a 17-year-old in 1989, the youngest male winner of a major. Runner-up at Roland Garros in 1995 and in the Australian and US Opens the next year.
Ken Rosewall Won the Australian and French Open titles as an 18-year-old in 1953. Winner of eight grand slam titles in total, although never Wimbledon where he was runner-up four times.
Mats Wilander Won the French as a 17-year-old in 1982, the first of three titles at Roland Garros and seven grand slam titles in all, although never Wimbledon where he failed to get beyond the quarter-finals.
Pete Sampras Won the first of his 14 grand slam titles at Flushing Meadows as a 19-year-old in 1990 when he became the youngest US Open champion since the previous century. Best at Roland Garros was semi-final.
Stefan Edberg Won the Australian Open as a 19-year-old in 1985, the first of his six grand slam titles. Best at Roland Garros was runner-up in 1989.
05-21-2005, 03:46 AM
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Rafael Nadal: Beast in the blood
Spanish prodigy Rafael Nadal talks to John Roberts about his remarkable rise, his sporting pedigree and his hopes for the French Open which starts on Monday
21 May 2005
You do not have to stray far from Rafael Nadal's home in Majorca to find a blood relation with the athletic qualities and mental strength required for success in great arenas. One of the tennis prodigy's uncles is Miguel Angel Nadal, the former Barcelona and Spain central defender.
Miguel Angel is not alone in being excited about Rafael's prospects of winning the French Open, which starts on Monday, at the first attempt. "Rafa", as the sturdy left-hander is known, is one of the favourites, even though he does not turn 19 until a week next Friday, the day of the men's semi-finals.
As a footballer, Miguel was no Angel. Lacking pace, he was often late in the tackle. Even so, "Beast of Barcelona" seems rather harsh. Rafa sprang to his uncle's defence. "Miguel Angel was not rough," he said. "He was a technical player. I used to go to the stadium all the time to see him when he played for Real Mallorca. And I kicked a ball in the garden with him lots of times."
Perhaps Miguel has been confused with Andoni Goicoechea, the "Butcher of Bilbao", who, in 1982, put Barcelona's Diego Maradona out of the game for four months and proudly covered the boot that did the damage in Perspex.
Not that Miguel needs his nephew to stand up for him. "Before I played in the European Championship with the national team in 1996," he recounted, "the English put in the newspaper that I was the 'Beast of Barcelona'. That sort of nickname was not right. I was known in Spain as somebody who played elegantly from defence, not dirty at all. I was not like Goicoechea, who went for the legs of people."
Rafa played football until he was 12. "We had a good team," he recalled. "I was a striker, and we won an inter-league championship. I spoke with Miguel Angel sometimes when he played football. We have a very good relationship, but not a professional relationship."
For that, Rafa relies on Miguel's brother, Toni. "My uncle Toni tells me everything I know," he said. "Apart from being an excellent tennis coach, Toni has been a fantastic educator for him," Miguel concurred. "He has taught him to appreciate things and keep his feet on the ground. He not only teaches him tennis, but also he teaches him life."
Tennis was Miguel's first love. "I used to play tennis until I was 15," he said. "In fact everybody thought I would play tennis instead of football. I always liked tennis more than football.
"A few days ago I was hitting balls with Rafael for an hour and 15 minutes. Last week Spanish television showed again the Roland Garros final between Arantxa [Sanchez Vicario] and Steffi Graf, and I stayed up until 3.30 in the morning watching it. If Rafael gets through to the second week, at Roland Garros, I would love to go."
His nephew is the Spanish No 1, and is obviously No 1 in Majorca, where the No 2 is his friend Carlos Moya, a former world No 1 and the 1998 French Open champion. Moya was born in Palma and now lives in Geneva. Nadal was born in Manacor and still lives there.
"In Manacor, I'm normal," Rafa said. "People have known me since I was a little kid. They congratulate me when I win something, but treat me like everybody else."
Do some of the other Spanish players resent the fact that someone so young has supplanted them in the world rankings?
"I don't really worry about the others, if I'm beating them or not," he said. "For me the important thing is that I win tournaments. If the other Spanish players are winning tournaments too, that's great, because that means I'm going to have more friends on tour."
Miguel has fond memories of Rafa as a child. "He was a kid who loved to play any kind of sport. Even at midnight he didn't want to stop. Being the first nephew that I had, and the first grandson for his father, he was always a centre of attention. He was a little kid who got on with everybody, a very open little kid, and he loved to play football and to watch football."
Did he have the potential to be a professional footballer? "You never know that, because football is not an individual sport, it's a team sport and there are a lot of factors that do not depend on yourself. Obviously, he had a lot of qualities and abilities, and he still does.
"My bother Toni has always been a funny guy and he was always kidding Rafael when he was a little kid. One of the things Toni told him was that he used to play in the Milan football team, and Rafael always thought it was true. But then one time there was a summer football tournament and Rafael saw his uncle Toni play football, and the team lost the match. Rafael was very disappointed and said: 'There's no way he was able to play in Milan. He's not that good - he's pretty bad, actually'."
Young Nadal is a Real Madrid supporter. "That's a very strange thing," Miguel said. "It's probably because when he was a little kid his father put a Real Madrid shirt on him. He's one of the few Real Madrid fans who was happy when Barcelona won the title when his uncle was playing."
When Nadal began kicking sand in the faces of big-name opponents, I tempted him with a top-spin lob. How would he react to being told that he has the physique of a Boris Becker and the fighting qualities of a Jimmy Connors?
"I hope I have, of course," he replied, smiling, "because those two players are great. If I were a mixture of both, I would be really high. I am thankful for the comment, but I don't think so."
He was wise to be doubtful about the comparison. Apart from anything else, Becker and Connors never won the French Open. Nadal, ranked No 5, may not be quite ready to win the world's premier clay-court title this time round, but it seems only a matter of time before he does.
Many European and Latin American players grow up on clay courts, but few look so completely at one with the surface as Nadal, who is au fait with its nuances and in dread of none.
This season, in the space of 27 days, he won 17 matches and three singles titles on clay: the Masters Series championships in Monte Carlo and Rome either side of the Barcelona tournament.
After defeating Guillermo Coria, of Argentina - last year's runner-up at the French Open - in five sets over five hours and 14 minutes in the Rome final (having already beaten Coria in four sets in Monte Carlo), Nadal was forced to take a break and missed the Hamburg Masters.
A blister on the index finger of his racket hand needed to heal, and his mind and body were on the verge of exhaustion. Although the finals in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome were played over the best of five sets, the earlier rounds were over the best of three sets.
To win the French Open, or any of the three other Grand Slam championships, a man must win seven matches over the best-of-five-sets.
In common with many of his compatriots, Nadal, while exceptional on clay and formidable on concrete, needs to adapt his baseline style for grass. "I can play good on hard courts," he said. "I played in the fourth round at the Australian Open and in the final in Key Biscayne. At some point I would love to also play good on grass, because there is a special atmosphere at Wimbledon. I have to improve my serve and my volley and my return."
That would seem to amount to a major overhaul but for the fact that Wimbledon's lawns - as Tim Henman would be the first to agree - are more durable nowadays and offer an even bounce. This time last year Nadal was unable to play because of a stress fracture to the left ankle. "After being injured it makes you think much more when you are doing well. It makes you realise how great it is to win and how great it is to be healthy. You remember those bad times when you were injured and life was more difficult. I like to play tennis. I enjoy the competition, and I am very lucky to be able to do what I like to do."
And to have such a supportive family.
Nadal's trials, titles and titanic struggles
Rise through the ranks
Reaches first ATP final in Auckland in January, but loses to Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Wins first ATP title at Sopot, Poland.
Inspires Spain's Davis Cup final victory against the United States by defeating the world No 2, Andy Roddick, 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-2. That makes Nadal the youngest player, at 18 years and six months, to record a singles victory in a Davis Cup final for a winning team.
Wins back-to-back ATP titles in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil, and Acapulco, Mexico.
Loses epic match against the world No 1, Roger Federer, 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 at Nasdaq-100 tournament in Key Biscayne after coming within two points of the title.
Wins his first Masters Series title in Monte Carlo, defeating the 2004 French Open runner-up, Guillermo Coria, 6-3, 6-1, 0-6, 7-5, in the final. A week later wins the Barcelona title, defeating his compatriot Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 French Open champion, 6-1, 7-6, 6-3.
Wins second Masters title at the Italian Open, defeating Coria 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 in five hours and 14 minutes - the longest final ever played in Rome.
05-21-2005, 04:04 AM
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Nadal refuses to dine out on success, fearing just desserts
May 21, 2005
THOSE who purport to know about matters of adolescence maintain much can be gleaned of a youth's characteristics by table manners.
Teenagers who bolt their food are likely to be impetuous; eating too slowly may depict hesitation.
Denied sustenance by the pressures of fame, Rafael Nadal contemplated a late lunch the day after claiming the Rome Masters with a calculated plan of strategy and meticulously set about the task of satisfying his ravenous hunger.
Most people his age would opt for a burger or the like after being deprived of dinner the previous night by the demands of work and then forced to rush breakfast. Fittingly, however, a plate of seafood lay before the 18-year-old who was raised on the Mediterranean island of Majorca; slivers of salmon, crab, scallops and king prawns.
Selecting the rarest of tuna steaks, Nadal neatly cut the fish into six equal strips with the same precision with which he has carved up most of his tennis opposition over the past few months. He eats his food in the same way he plays his sport; deliberate, assured and in a manner beyond his years. And the fact that most of the tennis world expects him to become the most successful debutant at a Grand Slam tournament for almost a quarter of a century is not about to cause even the faintest twinge.
"It is good, I like," Nadal says with a smile, spearing a piece of fish, but knowing that another session of interrogation on the matter of his sensational rise over the past six months is about to begin.
Laying down his fork to answer the initial and most obvious question, he brushes away the thick mop of black hair that perpetually shades his left eye and answers: "No, I don't really believe what is going on for me right now, because everything is falling my way, but the sensible thing is not to think about it too much.
"Five tournament wins is great, no? And big titles, in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. It makes me very happy, but I know I don't win these things through luck. I win because I work hard and play good. All I can do is make sure those things carry on and then maybe I will win some more.
"If I got to the French (Open) and keep playing like this, I have a good chance, because nobody has beaten me recently, but I don't know if that's going to happen."
Youthful exuberance has had little to do with the trail of success Nadal has left through the showpiece clay courts of the world this year. He may be a player who has come of age since scoring the pivotal win over world No.2 Andy Roddick that heralded Spain's victory in last December's Davis Cup final. But he is at ease with the situation, and although Roger Federer is the world's top-ranked male player and Gaston Gaudio the defending champion, it is the boy with the body and mind of a grown man who is expected to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires in three weeks.
Yet those closest to Nadal remain amazed by the demeanour of the player who started the year ranked outside the world's top 50 and is now No.5.
"He just doesn't seem affected or bothered by it all," says his agent, Carlos Costa, a top-10 player in the early 1990s who says he is now far busier dealing with the business side of sport's newest superstar.
"I notice no pressure in his mind, just a maturity that I have never seen in somebody so young."
Benito Perez-Barbadillo, the ATP's director of communications and Latin relations, agrees, but adds: "Watching the way he handles everything to do with his tennis, you would never realise how introverted he can be off the court. Rafa is the most famous thing ever to happen in his home town of Manacor, but when he goes home he is still shy when it comes to talking to the girls he likes. He can do whatever he likes on a tennis court, but back home, being a normal teenager, he has the same problems as so many other kids."
Perhaps the French Open title and its potential financial rewards might improve his attraction, although Nadal is already doing pretty well in that department, with career prizemoney to date of more than $US2million. He is following a proud Spanish tradition, established more than 40 years ago by Manolo Santana and repeated by Andres Gimeno, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Yet Nadal riles at the suggestion that it has always been his ambition to follow this line of succession. "Nunca (never)," he snaps. "It is wrong to think so high at a young age. It is not clever for me to hear what the people are saying about me going to Roland Garros this year. Right now I'm just thinking if I lose, it's because nobody can win every week.
"If I don't win another match this year, I will have accomplished the goal I set in January of getting into the top 20 in 2005. Last year it was the same, I just wanted to win my first ATP tournament and I did that in August after missing three months.
"Then there was Davis Cup final, and now to win Masters Series finals twice against a player like (Guillermo) Coria, who people said was the best in the world on clay last year, is a great thing.
"But I know I won't be able to keep playing like this all the time. It is not normal to win the sort of matches I have been winning. I know a bad patch will come. The important thing is that this will be my first year playing in Paris, not my last."
Such a defence mechanism is understandable. Public expectation has long been a factor in Nadal's life. Almost from the time he chose to concentrate on tennis rather than football at 12, he has been the focus of media attention in his homeland.
The consensus among those who know first-hand what it takes to succeed at Roland Garros is he will return to Majorca as French champion. Even Coria, perfectly qualified to make a dispassionate judgment between Nadal and Federer after losing to both recently, is insistent: "Sometimes you think Roger is impossible to beat, but of the two, Rafa is far the stronger on clay."
The Sunday Times
05-21-2005, 05:02 AM
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[B]"RAFA NADAL MARCARÁ UNA ÉPOCA EN EL TENIS MUNDIAL
Nos invade la Nadalmanía ¿Sorprendido?
No, en absoluto. Tuve la visión de darle hace dos años la invitación para que disputara el Masters Series de Madrid. Es un ganador. De Rafa me gusta todo: cómo lleva la popularidad, su naturalidad y cómo se ha quitado de encima el sambenito de ser favorito para ganar Roland Garros. Me impresiona su humildad y como se manifiesta.
¿Cree que este año ya será el número uno del mundo?
Está muy cerca de serlo. Su presente es fantástico y su futuro no se puede predecir. Lo tiene todo para triunfar y por su ambición marcará una época en el tenis mundial; seguro. Es un superdotado. Además, mientras que para otros es un martirio disputarlo, le ilusiona ganar Wimbledon. Y algún día lo ganará.
Nadal debe mejorar en...
Tiene que perfeccionar su volea y mejorar su servicio. Todo lo demás es formidable: su juego desde el fondo de la pista, el revés, la derecha... Y tiene un toque extraordinario para hacer las dejadas.
Parece que fuera el mánager del mallorquín.
Desde hace años he seguido su evolución y sabía que iba a triunfar. Y me encanta todo lo que rodea a Nadal: su entorno familiar, su naturalidad, sus entrenadores, su preparación física... Y es que por muy bueno que sea un jugador, como no tenga el entorno adecuado, se va al garete.
¿Nadal será el mejor tenista de las últimas décadas?
Para serlo todavía tiene que ganar muchas cosas, un Grand Slam como Moyá o Ferrero. Por cierto no entiendo como algunos ya descartan a Juan Carlos cuando es un jugador como la copa de un pino. No obstante espero que algún día Nadal llegue a ser tan bueno y regular como Federer.
¿Qué le falta para ser como el campeón suizo?
Tiempo, experiencia y madurez. ¡Si solo tiene 18 años! Para ser como Federer hay que ganar el US Open, Australia, Wimbledon... Lo bueno es que tiene el entorno ideal y está muy arropado para conseguirlo.
Y en Roland Garros otra vez se hablará español
Seguro. Nuestros jugadores se superan en París y siempre dan la talla. Es un torneo que se nos da bien: Bruguera, Albert Costa, Moyá, Ferrero... Federer lo tiene todo, pero mi favorito es español: Nadal, Moyá si está recuperado, Ferrero... Cualquiera de ellos.
¿Le afectará a Nadal disputar los partidos a cinco sets?
Hay que verlo. Contra Coria en Montecarlo ganó muy justito. Aunque el entorno mediático de Roland Garros es muy especial no creo que le afecte la presión. Si Rafa es fuerte fuera de la pista lo puede ganar.
Duarte es el nuevo director técnico del tenis español.
No opino. Si Pedro Muñoz le ha nombrado es porque creerá que es bueno y le va a ayudar.
En septiembre España se juega en Italia la permanencia en la Copa Davis.
Vamos a ganar seguro. Hoy por hoy, juguemos donde juguemos, somos superiores a los tenistas italianos.
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