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Closing The Gap

Unbeatable on clay courts, Nadal uses his tough-minded style to turn into a force on grass.

June 22, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

WIMBLEDON, England -- Humanity has failed since 1980 to find even one male who could hack the gruel to win on both Parisian clay and Wimbledon grass in the same June-July, but here comes a Spanish force of nature with a fabulous chance.

Rafael Nadal will try like mad as he does on every shot of every point of every match, which already places him ahead of Sergi Bruguera, Thomas Muster and Gustavo Kuerten -- who in certain years just skipped Wimbledon after winning French Opens -- and ahead of other recent French champions who crashed in early rounds and failed to let it wreck their evenings.

Along has come their antithesis, Nadal, who has renovated the very idea of the clay-court maestro on grass in reaching two consecutive Wimbledon finals and nearly winning against Roger Federer in a five-setter in 2007, after which Federer told the crowd he'd figured he'd better win now before the Nadal wave consumes him.

Said Nadal on Saturday in his accruing English: "If you want to be a big player, important player, you want to be in the top positions, well, is impossible don't come to one tournament like this. So, well, Wimbledon was very important in my mind, always."

Lacking the chromosome that permits coasting, he's amassing ferocity on grass, the evidence strong last Sunday when he became the first male Spaniard to win a grass-court tournament since "American Pie" was a new song (1972, Andres Gimeno). Looking utterly frightful all told, Nadal had barely scrubbed off French clay when he beat two-time Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick in the Queen's Club and No. 3 Novak Djokovic.

"Nadal's a different animal than people you would call dirt-ballers," Roddick said, referring to clay players. "He's stronger. He's bigger. You know, he doesn't play kind-of-soft tennis. . . . He can bully the ball."

"You know, he's getting better and better year after year" on grass, Djokovic said. "It was really impressive the way he played on grass. I consider him as one of the favorites to win Wimbledon."

He concentrates. He means it. He says the brief grass season doesn't offer the breadth of experience for improving, so he improves by perfecting serves, volleys and slices on other surfaces, then uses those on grass. It sounds like something Tiger Woods would do, and Tiger Woods did come up Saturday, which helped explain Nadal.

It turns out the latter just about idolizes the former.

"I never have an idol, no?" Nadal said. "But is probably the sportsman who I admire [most], no? Because I like a lot his mentality, I like a lot his eyes when he's gonna have the important shot. So he is always playing with unbelievable determination in important moments.

"The last part of the fourth day" of the U.S. Open -- and Nadal watched all, when not catching "four tuna" at home in Mallorca -- "only one guy with unbelievable concentration, unbelievable determination and big confidence in yourself, only Tiger can do it something like this, no? He has two days for lose with the par-five, and both days he had a birdie."

Then he waxed about doing this while in pain.

Nadal first graced Wimbledon at 17 in 2003 and reached the third round, right about when Spanish clay mavens got serious about this and halted the cliche about grass being for "cows." He has then spearheaded that seriousness, as 2007 found Spain with two quarterfinalists for the first time ever.

It has grown so heady that Bjorn Borg, that last male human to finagle the French-Wimbledon double, included in his myriad predictions one of Nadal winning here. In response, Nadal thanked Borg and praised Borg but said, "But, you know, Bjorn is not magic," while pretending to wave a wand.

As part of his arsenal and his charm, he remains convinced he can lose any time, which is why it's important to watch his eyes when he's gonna have the important shot, which for him is every shot.

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