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BEIJING 2008 : COMMENTARY

Nadal knows it's good to be king, no?

August 18, 2008|Mike Downey | Chicago Tribune

Beijing

Tall and tan and young and handsome, the boy from Espana goes walking. And when he passes, each girl he passes goes, "Aaah."

When he walks it's like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle. Orange bandanna, sleeveless red shirt, orange wristbands and white Bermuda-length shorts -- this isn't an outfit that a plain old anybody can bring off.

For the next 2 hours and 22 minutes of a Sunday afternoon, 22-year-old Rafael Nadal will win the Olympic men's tennis singles gold medal over Chile's Fernando Gonzalez in fairly uncomplicated straight sets, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

After that, for the photographers, Nadal will bare his teeth and take a healthy bite into a gold medal, just as he did to his 2008 Wimbledon silver tray and French Open tureen, continuing to be a remarkably good sport for the camera as well as the Hannibal Lecter of trophies.

Finally, first thing this morning, the new world rankings will come out, certifying the dashing young man from Manacor, Spain, as numero uno, breaking a stranglehold that Roger Federer has had on this No. 1 status symbol for the last 4 1/2 years.

And now, on to New York, no?

OK, yes, the U.S. Open is where Nadal does go from here. Cut the kid some slack, though, because as he says, in his charming Spanglish, "Now is the moment for enjoy this moment because I am having unbelievable year. Nowhere in my best dreams I can imagine something like what I did this year, so I want to enjoy these moments, no?"

Why not, no?

Phelps, schmelps. A swimmer -- even a super-swimmer -- comes along every four years, captures your imagination for a couple of weeks, makes a round of personal appearances, then drops off the face of the earth. This will happen to the Michigan Wolverine of the chlorine, Michael Phelps, as sure as water is wet.

Ah, but a tennis champion, he trots around the globe, court after court, Grand Slam tournament after Grand Slam tournament, never too far from the public eye. Nadal could be the international sports ruler of the world right now, what with Tiger Woods out of commission and David Beckham no longer at the top of his game.

Nadal is a happy man to come so far in so short a time, no?

He said before Sunday's match, "For me, is a dream to be in this final, no?"

And: "Very happy for have this experience in my life, no?"

And: "Everyone have different goals. Not for every player is the same important the things, no?"

Yes. Take, for instance, Elena Dementieva, a young Russian player who won the Olympic women's singles gold medal just before Nadal's turn on center court.

She won a tough match against her friend Dinara Safina, who double-faulted a whopping 17 times, threw her racket three times and angrily whacked a ball into the crowd.

Dementieva was as delighted as her opponent was demented. She said the Olympic gold medal had been a dream of hers since childhood -- it became an Olympic sport in 1992 -- and called it such a thrill, "I cannot even compare Grand Slam and Olympic Games because this is just so much bigger. To be an Olympic champion, this is the top of the career."

Possibly.

And even a grande dame of the Grand Slams such as Venus Williams isn't beyond being overwhelmed by this, saying of her gold medal in doubles, which she won with sister Serena, "I have chill bumps."

Which is cool.

A guy like Nadal, though, can scarcely find words to explain what is happening to him.

Wherever he plays these days, whatever the surface -- clay, grass, hard court -- he wins. Federer did not go into some kind of a slump and have to give up his standing as the world's No. 1 player; Nadal snatched it away from him.

Rafa acts almost embarrassed to replace Roger.

"I was very happy to be the No. 2," he said.

He has become a heartthrob as well. Women in the Olympic village, where he stayed rather than at a hotel, mobbed Nadal wherever he went. A lot of those who see him play would like to get him on a slow boat to China.

His opponent Sunday was Gonzalez, who added a silver to the 2004 gold (doubles) and bronze (singles) he possessed. Gonzalez played villain to Nadal's hero, having alienated a few fans in his semifinal match versus James Blake, who practically called out the Chilean as a cheat.

Gonzalez went quietly in the final, squandering two set points in the second set and ending up cooked like a sea bass. Not meaning to boast, Nadal said, "I think I played almost perfect match, no?"

Yes.

His reward was a gold medal bestowed upon him by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the esteemed former International Olympic Committee president, who didn't look a day under 120.

Playing for his homeland was Nadal's favorite part. He said, "It was for a lot of people, not only for me."

A guy could get chill bumps, winning so many wonderful things one after another in his young life. No?

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