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Friday, April 24, 2009
Who wants another old-fashion Nadal whippin'?

One of the more compelling questions raised by Rafael Nadal's emergence as an all-court Grand Slam champion in late 2008 and early 2009 was: Just how often does this kid have to win Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris before he looks at the red-clay lineup of tournaments, shrugs, and says, "Been there, done that. Think I'll go trekking in the Alps this May, or maybe take a six-week surfing vacation in Hawaii."

Apparently, the answer is "at least five times." Nadal won Monte Carlo for the fifth straight year, and is threatening to do the same at Barcelona. David Nalbandian, penciled in as Nadal's quarterfinal opponent, pulled out of Barcelona with a bum hip. Far be it for me to question Nalbandian's integrity, but really, why should he -- or anyone else -- go out there when they know they're just going to get an old-fashioned whipping at the hands of this 22-year-old clay-court demon?

Twenty-two is a pretty young age to claim you're the greatest ever, at anything, unless you're a gymnast or professional ice-skater. And while Nadal has not made that claim, his record on that score is pretty persuasive. Just contemplate some of these numbers:

Nadal's career record on clay is 166-14, but that includes 10 losses incurred before> 2005 -- in other words, back when he probably was still reading "Captain Underpants" books and watching "Thomas the Tank Engine" videos. Since the start of 2005, he's 139-4. The Fab Four who own wins over him in that period are: Gaston Gaudio, Igor Andreev, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero. The win must have been cold comfort for Ferrero, because he's the Spanish guy everyone immediately forgot when Nadal emerged on the scene.

So far, Nadal has bagged 23 clay-court titles; that's as many titles as former world No. 1 Jim Courier won during his entire career -- on all surfaces. That figure includes Nadal's four consecutive French Open titles. In fact, Nadal is unbeaten at Roland Garros -- and could remain so for the next, oh, five or seven years.

Nadal has absorbed just three losses against members of the current top 25: Federer, David Ferrer and Fernando Gonzalez. You can bet that the eight members of that distinguished group who have yet to play Nadal on clay aren't exactly elbowing each other out of the way to get at Nadal. The most extraordinary element in Nadal's history on clay is his ability to sustain that through-the-roof level of play. And any suspicions that, with the Wimbledon and Australian Open titles in hand, he'd ease up or find it hard to get motivated for another clay-court season have been pretty much blown out of the water.

This inability to slow down, lose interest or rest on his laurels is a key to understanding Nadal, and it points to some of his extraordinary virtues as a competitor. Chief among these is his sheer love of tennis combat. If he were just a gifted title-bagger, or a young athlete hell-bent on achieving fame and fortune, it's unlikely that he'd be playing this clay-court season as if it were his first.

No player in our era has shown such a profound and simple love of competition, and it's that devotion to the process that has enabled Nadal to transcend the stereotype of a "clay-court specialist."

In the end, as much as he loves the clay, it isn't about the clay. The roots of Nadal's success are far, far below the surface.