Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The genius of Rafa Nadal

Pop quiz: Who was the world's No. 2 player at the end of 1998, right behind Pete Sampras?
Everyone knows that Roger Federer is the best tennis player in the world, and on his way to being the best ever. He's 25 years old, has ten Grand Slam titles and has been No. 1 for the last three years, solid. His legend is assured. He is untouchable. Almost.
Rafael Nadal now holds 3 French Open titles, and had to beat Federer each year to do it. In fact, he's never lost at Roland Garros. He has been ranked No. 2 in the world since July of 2005. Some have discounted his success, calling him a ball basher, which is a bit unfair.
Being a ball basher implies that Nadal -- like the Williams sisters, and Maria Sharapova -- can bludgeon a ball, but there's little or no strategy involved. But it takes a little brainpower to understand that you can hit hard, if you use topspin. Nadal's balls clear the net, and stay deep and high on his opponent, rarely giving them a ball that'll land in their comfort zone.
Yet, for all his clay conquests and reputation as Federer's Achilles' heel, he is in danger of being forgotten. History can't forget Federer, even if he never wins the French. But Nadal? Three majors notwithstanding, Nadal needs to make his mark at the other ones if he wants as big a slice of history as Federer's. In other words, he'll need to win the Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, or the Australian Open a couple of times.
Nadal gets to start his grass campaign now at a warmup event in London. Realistically, he'll probably have the most difficulty at Wimbledon. His style of play -- heavy topspin and long points -- doesn't translate well to grass.
But at least his motivation can be that no one remembers No. 2, even when he seems to be the only player in the world who has No. 1's number, as it were. No one remembers him, until he becomes No. 1 himself, or at least, wins a Grand Slam other than the French Open.
So, who was No. 2 in the world in 1998? Funny you should ask. It was Marcelo Rios.

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