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Rafa's Revenge
by Steve Flink

          

Nadal looks to continue his dominance on clay.
As he headed to Monte Carlo this week for the first of the significant 2007 Masters Series events on clay, Spain's dynamic Rafael Nadal realized--- despite his multitude of triumphs across the last two years--- that he will still need to prove his prowess again on the dirt. As he began his 2007 clay court campaign, the left-handed topspin wizard had not been beaten on his favorite surface since April 8, 2005, when Igor Andreev toppled him in Valencia. After that setback, Nadal proceeded to record victories in his next 62 clay court matches. In that remarkable span, he twice conquered the excellent fields at Monte Carlo and the Italian Open. But, more importantly, he came through where it counted the most, taking back to back French Open crowns with an admirable blend of speed, power, precision, and incomparable industriousness. Moreover, he demonstrated that no one could surpass his supreme grit and unwavering fighting spirit.

            By the end of Roland Garros in 2006, Nadal was riding high. He had by then knocked Roger Federer out of the world's premier slow court tournament in successive years, and he had built an astonishing five match winning streak over his towering rival. He went on to reach his first Wimbledon final before Federer prevailed in four sets. But the rest of 2006 was largely a disappointment for Nadal, and his slump lingered until last month, when he finally captured another tournament by claiming the crown at the Masters Series event in Indian Wells, California.

            With impressive wins in that prestigious tournament over Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic, a revitalized Nadal seemed to have recovered his old conviction. But then he suffered a quarterfinal loss to Djokovic less than two weeks later in Miami, and pulled out of the Spain-U.S. Davis Cup contest to rest an ailing foot. So Nadal may be looking at the path ahead with no more than cautious optimism.

           He knows he is the best clay court player in the world, recognizes that his litany of successes in 2005 and 2006 was no mean feat, and understands that his adversaries are well aware of what a monumental  effort it takes for anyone to beat him on the red clay. Nevertheless, Nadal is realistic. He can't expect to dominate on the clay this season to the degree he did the past two years. In that period, he had some very close calls. In the 2005 Italian Open final, Guillermo Coria took Nadal into a fifth set tie-break. In 2006, on the same court, Nadal fended off two match points at 5-6 in the fifth set against Federer, then rallied gamely from 3-5 down in the final set tie-break to win the finest match of 2006, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5).

           The seeds of self doubt had not yet been planted yet in Nadal's psyche back then. But he has endured so many tough times since that it is hard to imagine he will not lose at least once on the clay in the weeks ahead. I believe he might well benefit from losing either this week or in one of the subsequent tournaments on the road to Roland Garros. The temporary sting of defeat would surely be replaced by a considerable sense of relief. He would no longer have to protect his clay court streak, and he could then simply get on with the business at hand.

           To some extent, that nagging foot injury will determine whether or not Nadal is able to produce his best tennis both this week and beyond. His court coverage--- more than anything else-- is what separates him from the pack on clay courts. If his quickness is even remotely compromised, if he is not covering the court with his unmistakable alacrity, if his opponents sense that his movement is not up to normal standards, then Nadal could run into trouble. But if he is healthy and as mobile as he needs to be, Nadal will win his share of clay court events this year.

          The primary goal for Nadal is to be certain he can perform at the peak of his powers throughout the fortnight at Roland Garros. He does not need to win everything in sight before he gets to Paris. What matters more for Nadal is getting the right kind of preparation, being tested and coming through in some long and strenuous matches, finding his range off the ground and dictating rallies with his penetrating forehand. He needs to get match tough, to know that he is grooming himself for the premier clay court examination of them all at Roland Garros.

         I love Nadal's spunk and his winning personality. He has a mentality exhibited only by a champion. As the British would say, he "imposes his will" as forcefully as anyone in the world. I hope he gets back on his game over the next month. The bottom line is that there is no one better than Rafael Nadal at his best on clay.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to the TennisChannel.com

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