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Friday, August 15, 2008
Spain's shining star in Beijing

When I saw Rafael Nadal hit the deck after his Olympic Games semifinal win over Novak Djokovic (I gave him a nine out of 10 for that particular back flop) it occurred to me that his exuberance was caused by more than Djokovic's ugly unforced error (and on a gimme overhead, no less!) on match point.

This has been a rough Olympics for Spain. First, one of its female cyclists was sent home for doping. Then we had that unsavory "slant-eye" basketball photo op. Worst of all, at least for the Spanish, is that they've won squat. Although Nadal is now assured of at least a silver medal, Mongolia currently has as many medals as Spain (two), and so does Kyrgystan. Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan and even tiny Netherlands have won more.

Thus, Nadal is the single, towering, role model Spain has in Beijing, and his reaction to making the final is a testament to the nationalistic burden he's carrying. But as good a job as he's done, I wouldn't pencil Nadal in for the gold just yet. In the final, he'll be playing Fernando "Gonzo" Gonzalez, the man who unexpectedly lost feeling in the nerve endings of his right hand during his match with the USA's James Blake. And Gonzalez probably ranks right behind Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as a hard-court threat -- at least on a given day.

I wouldn't have dreamed of writing those words a week before the Olympics, because Gonzalez also happens to rank right behind Marat Safin as an enormously talented player capable of anything -- even though "anything" usually is code for "something ghastly." He's terribly inconsistent, but when Gonzo gets on a roll, he can smoke anyone. Last year, he played lights out hard-court tennis to reach the Australian Open final, then promptly spiraled into mediocrity again. But he's facing the opportunity of a lifetime here, and there are solid reasons why this superb shotmaker could win.

First, this is Olympics tennis. If Gonzo were a tournament, he would be an Olympics tennis event -- unpredictable, puzzling, exciting. Second, he flourishes under such anything-goes conditions, as he showed in Athens in 2004 when he won the bronze in singles and the gold in doubles (with Nicolas Massu -- who also won the singles gold medal). Third, Chile is one of the few nations that is performing worse than Spain in the Olympics (thus far, no medals), and with silver guaranteed, Gonzo is already assured of national-hero status. That means he's playing with house money. He can let it rip against Nadal. It's all icing.

This would all be just armchair psychology were it not for the head-to-head record of the two finalists. They're 3-3, but just as importantly, Gonzo has won their only two hard-court meetings, plus he's beaten Nadal on clay. All three of Nadal's wins have been on his beloved dirt. There's no question that Nadal will be wondering what's in store in the final, and aware that the answer is "anything" -- this time, not in code.

Nadal showed signs of feeling the pressure in his match with Djokovic. He didn't have sufficient length on his groundstrokes, and were it not for clever bit of strategy that he hit upon late in the third set (jam Djokovic with the serve to the right hip), he might have had harder work of it.

It doesn't seem fair that a player of Nadal's ability and consistency ought to be facing a trial by fire again, and so soon after surviving the one at Wimbledon, but that's how I see it. This is as tough a final as he might have expected, if not predicted.