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No. 1 on charts and in hearts

March 16, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Rafael Nadal of Spain played Michael Berrer of Germany in a tennis match in front of nearly 16,000 people in Indian Wells on Sunday. Both are left-handed.

The similarity ended there.

Nadal, you see, is not so much a tennis player as he is a freak of nature. He is No. 1 in the world and it is fair to say the guys on Mars and Venus can't touch him, either.

He beat Berrer, 6-2, 6-1, and it was so one-sided you started to feel bad for Berrer. They should have let him play with a racket and a club.

The men's tennis game of today is one of huge bombers. Almost everyone on the tour hits ground strokes that are rockets. Nadal does that one better. His shots arrive before they have departed. It's like watching laser lights at the carnival.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Tennis: In Monday's Sports section, a column on the tournament at Indian Wells said a Sunday attendance record was set with 22,724 tickets sold. However, that number was only for the day crowd, which was a record. The evening attendance was 13,842 for a total of 36,566.

Fans here for the BNP Paribas Open, and the sprawling Indian Wells Tennis Garden that is its centerpiece, were ready for Nadal's first appearance in this second-round singles match. He had played doubles, but that's like Placido Domingo doing rap.

For several days, he has been hitting on the practice courts, and, almost embarrassingly, there have been times when the crowds gathered to watch him there have outnumbered those in the stadium.

So, shortly after 5:15 p.m., after top-seeded female player Dinara Safina had made more than 50 unforced errors and still won in straight sets, Berrer and Nadal took the court.

The occasionally annoying public address announcer had just sent Safina's vanquished opponent, Shuai Peng, off the court with the same salutation he has for almost all the defeated: "You'll be seeing a lot of her in the future." (Oh? Where?)

He brought Berrer on to a smattering of polite applause.

Then came Nadal, and the place erupted, the tone decidedly female. Despite being a muscular, almost unbeatable animal on the court, Nadal has this teddy-bear image that has attracted groupies in droves.

Nadal won the toss and elected to receive. Normally, serving first is the preference, unless your confidence level is such that you figure you can break serve early and steamroller. Nadal broke serve early and steamrollered.

Berrer, good enough to be No. 112 in the world and not shying away from the action in his first chance at playing Nadal, hit hard and even came to the net in his first service game.

Of course, Nadal almost killed him the first time and passed him with a shrug the second time. Oh, well. A decent try.

Soon, the 28-year-old Berrer was little more than a puppet on a string. After the first set, Berrer changed his shirt. He needed to change his opponent. Often, in these situations, a tennis player will call for a trainer. Berrer needed a priest.

Nadal has become No. 1 at a time when a pretty fair country player named Roger Federer is still around and still at least close to his prime. The Spaniard from the island of Mallorca, at age 22 five years the second-ranked Federer's junior, has won the last four French Opens, last year's Wimbledon and this year's Australian Open, and took away Federer's 237-week reign at No. 1 last August.

He started out being your typical Spanish player -- thriving on clay and looking slightly lost on other surfaces. But now that Nadal has debunked that notion, he can reach a tennis perch currently inhabited by only two people in history. That perch is reserved for players who have won every Grand Slam tournament at least once, plus an Olympic gold medal.

The only people currently resting there are married to each other, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.

Nadal, having won the gold in Beijing last fall, is just one U.S. Open away, and the type of court surface they use in New York is not that dissimilar to what he won on in Melbourne.

There is also talk, as there always is at this event, of a Grand Slam run for the Australian winner. Nadal, of course, is the only man with that shot this year.

Asked about it afterward, Nadal, in his delightful broken English, brushed the subject away as effectively as he had Berrer.

"The true is Grand Slam is not impossible, but really, really difficult," he said.

He also said, several times, that his approach was "to try my best, all the time."

On an afternoon and evening when a Sunday attendance record was set here with 22,724 tickets sold -- just a few hundred shy of Saturday's big day -- nobody who got in the stadium to see Nadal could doubt that.

Nor could poor Berrer, the center-court punching bag, who left to the sounds of the PA guy asking people to put their hands together for him.

And so they did. Pity pats.

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bill.dwyre @latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BNP Paribas Open

TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES

Stadium Court (starting at 11 a.m.)

Paul-Henri Mathieu, France, vs. Andy Murray, Britain; James Blake vs. Fernando Gonzalez, Chile; Ana Ivanovic, Serbia, vs. Gisela Dulko, Argentina; Roger Federer, Switzerland, vs. Ivo Karlovic, Croatia.

Court 3 (starting at 11 a.m.)

Mardy Fish-Andy Roddick vs. Michael Llodra, France-Radek Stepanek, Czech Republic (third match).

Stadium Court (starting at 7:30 p.m.)

Daniela Hantuchova, Slovakia, vs. Petra Cetkovska, Czech Republic; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France, vs. Igor Andreev, Russia.

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