Nadal: No one-slam wonder

As a teen prodigy, Rafael Nadal’s achievements match or surpass those of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Mats Wilander, suggesting that his first grand-slam title is unlikely to be his last.

Then again, the Spaniard is the youngest French Open men’s champion since Michael Chang, who never won another major title.

But few expect 19-year-old Nadal to become a one-slam wonder. He’s too big and strong, too cool and creative, too pugnacious and precocious.

He’s already the king of clay, thanks to a victory on Sunday over Mariano Puerta in the Roland Garros final, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5. Now he’ll set his sights on other surfaces, beginning with grass this week at Halle, Germany.

“I know [grass] is not my best surface,” Nadal said.
“It’s a little bit fast. I need to improve some things in my game [to] play better in grass and in the fast courts.”

Nadal reached the third round at Wimbledon two years ago when he was just 17, and then missed last year’s tournament with an injury. With only an average serve, he won’t be among the favourites when the tournament begins in two weeks, but his current 24-match winning streak suggests he’s not to be discounted.

“We are talking about someone who is going to write a page in the history of tennis,” Puerta said. “I think he’s going to do some beautiful things. He’s going to become a legend.”

Nadal is already drawing comparisons to grand-slam greats:

  • He’s the youngest man to win a major title since Chang became the French champion in 1989 at age 17. Nadal is almost a month younger than Sampras was when he won the first of his record 14 major titles at the 1990 United States Open.
  • He’s the first man to win the French Open on his initial try since Wilander, who claimed the first of his seven grand-slam titles at Roland Garros in 1982.
  • His winning streak is the longest by a male teenager in the Open era, surpassing Agassi by one victory. Agassi has since gone on to claim eight major titles.

However many Nadal wins, his first will be well remembered. One testament to the quality of his performance: he had 54 winners and 28 unforced errors, a remarkable ratio. And for sheer entertainment, the final surprisingly surpassed his semifinal victory on his birthday against top-ranked Roger Federer.

He and Puerta kept each other scrambling as they chased drop shots, lobs and sharply angled groundstrokes. Some of the best rallies came in the tiebreaker, with each point seemingly more spectacular than the last, and there was another series of frantic exchanges with Puerta on the verge of forcing a fifth set.

By then Puerta, an unseeded Argentine less than a year removed from a doping suspension that dropped his ranking to 440th, had the centre-court crowd chanting his name.

“Unfortunately, Nadal didn’t let me play the fifth set,” Puerta said. “I could still be playing now, in fact. But it was a beautiful match all the same.”

Three times serving at 5-4, Puerta reached set point. On one, he lunged to his right to dig out a volley, then leapt to his left in a vain attempt to return another, dumping the ball in the net as he went sprawling in the clay. Nadal jumped in jubilation.

The last point of the game produced another exciting exchange. Nadal charged forward to scoop up a drop shot, and when Puerta slammed a shot back toward him from point-blank range, the Spaniard hit a reflex volley for a winner.

In his post-match news conference, Nadal recounted that final point of the game stroke by stroke. Then he grinned, raised both arms and made V-for-victory signs with his hands.

“I can win the point, no?” he said.

Two games later, Nadal had his title. He sank to the clay, rose and embraced Puerta at the net, then trotted to the other end of the court to accept congratulations from the king of Spain sitting in the first row.

“He said it’s incredible what I did,” Nadal said.

The beaming youngster accepted the championship trophy from one of his idols, Real Madrid soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

“He said I was a phenomenon,” Nadal said.

The raves keep coming. The titles likely will, too.—Sapa-AP

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