Nadal ends drought in dominating fashion

3/19/2007 - Tennis

The four-day weekend that began last Thursday was heaven for people who love both college basketball and tennis. We could toggle back and forth between all-day, all-night hoops and the afternoon and evening matches at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells. Calif. Duke ousted! Roddick wins! Ewing Junior reverse dunks! Murray rolls ankle but outlasts cramping Haas!

So many NCAA games come down to a single failure to execute: a missed free throw, a pass to mid-court heaved directly into the arms of an opponent. At these moments, when cheerleaders weep and pep bands play the alma mater in a plaintive key and stricken losers-to-be drape towels over their heads on the bench, announcers have been known to intone:

"Sometimes it's easy to forget they're just kids."

Sometimes it's easy to forget that Rafael Nadal, who will turn 21 in June, is the same age as many of the juniors and seniors we see hitting the hardwood this time of year. During his recent finals drought, he was the victim of the expectations he has raised since his swashbuckling emergence on the scene.

Nadal captured the 18th singles championship of his career on Sunday, defeating Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells. It was the lefty's first title since he defended his French Open crown last spring, a stretch everyone kept bringing up, as if he might forget.

It made everyone bullish again on Nadal, whose Nikes bear a special bull logo, the natural totem for a Spanish sporting supernova. But did he really deserve to have his stock downgraded in the months that led up to this?

There are two common styles of play on Wall Street. You either watch your investments obsessively, getting in or out at the first sign of opportunity or trouble, or you buy and hold and ride out the inevitable dips. It says here that Nadal's value will continue to grow, his work will pay steady dividends, and the flat months since his loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final last summer were what money people would call a necessary price correction.

"He had the greatest run of his young career, and it exhausted him," said commentator Mary Carillo. "He burns, that guy. That's why it's fun to watch him. But you can bounce back from a lot when you're 20 years old."

All Nadal had done over the last three seasons, coming into Indian Wells, was win twice at Roland Garros; win six prestigious Masters Series titles; win four tournaments on hard court, his "off" surface; surpass Guillermo Vilas' 30-year-old record for consecutive wins on clay; beat Federer six out of the nine times they played, four of those wins in high-level finals; reach the championship match at Wimbledon; sit at world No. 2 for an unprecedented 86 straight weeks; and resist cracking mentally at the thought of the cinderblock ceiling between him and the aforementioned Federer.

At Nadal's age, Pete Sampras had won one Grand Slam event and eight total titles. Andre Agassi? No slams, 12 titles. Boris Becker? Two slams, 12 titles. Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl? No slams, 13 titles between them. The only player arguably as precocious was Bjorn Borg, who had won the French twice and Wimbledon once by age 20.

Yet much of the discussion about Nadal in the months since he bowed to Federer at Wimbledon had a what-have-you-done-for-us-lately quality. Nadal's dominance on clay is now taken for granted, so the questions focus on his ability to adapt his positioning, footwork, tactics and grips to grass and hard court.

Carillo predicted he can and will. "He's a true problem solver," she said. She noted that Nadal has flattened out his serve on hard court and is working on taking the ball earlier, ranging closer to the baseline and giving up less open court and fewer angles.

"He has to figure out why the players who beat him are able to beat him, and that's usually because they play high-risk tennis," she said.

At Indian Wells, Nadal appeared as if he'd shaken off the insecurity that characterized his play last fall and continued into the Australian Open two months ago. His 74-minute dismantling of Andy Roddick was more revealing than his matchup with Djokovic, who was playing in his first Masters Series final. Nadal won 81 percent of his first-serve points against Roddick and painted the corners with his forehand like a canny fastball pitcher.

Earlier this year, as Jim Courier observed, Nadal played tentatively from the baseline and "looked like a guy who was hoping his shots would go in rather than believing they would."

Yet Courier had no patience for any doleful assessments of Nadal during his title drought.

"I don't see him as a guy who's weak mentally," Courier said. "He's trying to become a better player, which should be his priority. What you're seeing is an adjustment in all areas. He's gone from being a young hope to being one of the premier sportsmen in his country and the world. He's got a lot on his plate and I think he's doing a very nice job of dealing with it."

The bull logo on his sneakers suits the only player who has regularly gored the Head Matador. Emotion clearly fuels him, and he might have to learn to pace himself in order to get more consistent mileage. Yet for all his smouldering and flared nostrils on court, Nadal's basic good nature also brings to mind Ferdinand the Bull, the children's book hero who wanted to stop and smell the flowers.

That sweet temper might explain why Nadal hasn't seen red at the repeated inference that he hasn't been meeting his earnings expectations lately.

"At quarterfinals, semifinals, I was always there (in the last few months)," he said after defeating Djokovic. "Seven Masters Series and two Grand Slams is very good, too, no? But, well, yes, I just thinking about continuing to improve my game."

Ferdinand, of course, was a pacifist, while Nadal relishes competition. He's benefited from a unique situation, struggling in relative terms without ever being in danger of tumbling out of No. 2. That gives Nadal the benefit of the doubt in draws and ensures that he doesn't have to worry about the guy with the cape until and unless he gets to the final.

That will be the case in Key Biscayne, Fla. Nadal reached the final in 2005, but was upset in a shockingly uneven second-round match (6-2, 1-6, 1-6) by one of his mentors, Carlos Moya.

If Nadal can retain his momentum, his opponents will find themselves trying to run with a very motivated bull. And we've all seen how easily he can cause them to lose their footing and be trampled.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.