- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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He had won modest clay-court tournaments in the sunny resort outposts of Costa Do Sauipe, Brazil, and Acapulco, Mexico. But this was different. This was the ATP Masters Series championship final in Miami and Roger Federer, the No. l player in the world, was on the other side of the net.
And yet 18-year-old Rafael Nadal did not blink back in March. Well, not exactly.
Playing on a hard surface not exactly conducive to his creative game, Nadal won the first two sets and the third came down to a harrowing tiebreaker, which he lost. Federer, who had looked as close to helpless as a Grand Slam champion can, found an equilibrium and came back to win the match. It was 6-1 in the fifth set and Nadal's young spirit seemed broken.
As the saying goes, "What doesn't kill you "
Consider Nadal the strongest contender for the 2005 French Open title in his first appearance at stately Roland Garros Monday. Instead of curling up in a ball, Nadal went out and won three straight tournaments on clay: Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. After wavering in the Monte Carlo final against Guillermo Coria (he said he was visited by flashbacks of his collapse against Federer) Nadal bested 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in Barcelona, then prevailed over Coria in a rousing 5-hour, 14-minute final that had old-timers at the Foro Italico saying it was the best final they had ever seen.
Certainly, Nadal's 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory as dusk settled in was the longest final in open era history and it underlined his fierce resolve. He might still be a teenager, but he wants to win as much as anyone on the ATP Tour maybe more.
"It's about his heart," three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander said last week. "I think Nadal has got to be the favorite. I like his chances a lot.
"If he wins it, you can repeat the same story every year for the next 10 years. Once you learn to win the French, you're always going to be a factor there, for sure."
This, Wilander knows. In a span of seven years, from 1982-88, he won the French Open three times and lost in the final twice. Wilander's first victory in Paris is relevant 23 years later because it was his first appearance at the tournament at the age of 17. Does this story line sound vaguely familiar?
"Well," Wilander said, "there's a big difference. In 1982, I hadn't won anything going into the French. In 1983, it was more like Nadal because I won at Monte Carlo and Lisbon. I won 24 straight points from [John] McEnroe at the French that year and I would have won the title if I hadn't had all of France against me [in the final against Frenchman Yannick Noah].
"I don't think that will be a problem for Nadal."
No less an authority than Thomas Muster, the 1995 French Open champion, sees great things ahead for Nadal.
"Maybe he won't win the French this year, maybe not next year, but there is going to be a time when he is going to win the French Open," said Muster, who recently practiced with Nadal before a Delta Tour of Champions event. "Maybe he'll win it this year. It wouldn't surprise me. The main thing is, he's not waiting for it to come to him. He's coming out with the attitude that he's going to go for it, and that's already a very big step."
He is an official prodigy.
Nadal has been accomplishing unprecedented feats at a young age for a number of years. But at an age when most are still in high school, the powerful left-hander has risen rapidly to the top of men's professional tennis.
Federer leads this season's ATP Race with 575 points. Nadal not Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick or Marat Safin is right behind with 465 points. In the entry rankings that are based on a full year of activity, Nadal rose to the No. 5 spot last week. He is the youngest player to crack the top five since Michael Chang, at 17 years and five months, did it in the summer of 1989. Nadal is the second-youngest player ever to win a Masters Series event, missing Chang's 1990 achievement in Toronto by five months.
Nadal is 41-6 overall for the year and a searing 31-2 on clay, and has won his last 17 matches going into the French Open. He has won five titles this year already, matching Federer.
People who follow tennis closely have seen this coming for years. Nadal, like his mentor-turned-friend Carlos Moya, is from the Spanish island of Mallorca. In his early years, Nadal played soccer, following his uncle, Miguel Angel Nadal, a defender on the Spanish national team. But when he was 12, Nadal began playing tennis seriously. He won his first ATP match at 15 and cracked the top 50 a year later. He has been practicing with Moya, the 1998 French Open champion, for years and beat him in 2003, at the age of 16.
But Nadal, if he happens to be your opponent, is a fearsome sight to behold.
"He is a man, not a boy," ESPN analyst Mary Carillo said. "Physically, he's so much more imposing than he was a few years ago. He's not like a lot of these other young guys [like Richard] Gasquet and Donald Young. He reminds me of [Guillermo] Vilas, another powerful, muscle-bound lefty. He bullied the ball, but Nadal seems a lot more flexible, both physically and in his attitude.
"I love the way he's coming along and how hungry he is."
Eliot Teltscher, a 10-year professional and director of tennis operations for the USTA, sees Nadal as a clay-court player with something extra.
"He counter-punches great. He'll stay out there for eight hours," Teltscher said. "But the guy's very physically imposing, very strong. It's tough to play three sets on clay and hit 70 winners, but he can do it."
Recently retired Todd Martin learned of Nadal's prowess well before the curve.
"Jose Higueras and I have been close for years and when he was coaching Moya a few years ago, he talked about Nadal practicing with him when he was only 13," Martin said. "Jose was pretty high on his chances to succeed on the men's tour.
"The thing about Nadal is that he moves extraordinarily well. Tennis is a series of short bursts of 15 to 20 feet, and he covers that ground maybe not as smoothly and effortlessly as Federer or Coria very hard, but that allows him to put a little bit more into his shots."
After he defeated Ferrero in Barcelona, Nadal made his first appearance in the ATP's top 10. The youngest player to break into the top 10 since Andrei Medvedev (June 1993) celebrated the milestone with a typically low-key approach.
"I've always heard people talking about the top 10 players, and now I'm one of them," Nadal said through an interpreter. "But I feel exactly the same as I did three months ago when I was No. 56. The only difference is that I've got a new number now.
"I've spent my whole life preparing to be a success in tennis and I plan to keep working with the same humility as always and will keep trying to improve my game. I don't aim to rest on my laurels, that's for sure."
Ivan Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam champion, is impressed.
"I saw that [Miami] match with Federer, and I thought Nadal was doing things that the other guys can't do against Federer," Lendl said. "Obviously, how heavy he hits the ball has to be a concern with the guys. He's awfully young to win a Grand Slam, but when he improves his serve and gets more experience, he's going to be tough."
Federer made his Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros in 1999 as a 17-year-old, but lost in the first round. In 2002, Richard Gasquet, at 15 years, 11 months, became the second-youngest male to play a Grand Slam main draw match. The Frenchman actually took a set from eventual champion Albert Costa.
That this is Nadal's first French Open is something of a fluke. An elbow injury suffered in practice took him out of the 2003 French Open. A stress fracture in his left ankle forced him to miss last year's tournament.
The only asterisk hovering over Nadal is his match load. Four months and one week into the season he already had played a staggering 47 matches. Last year, Roddick led the ATP with 92 matches, a number Nadal could easily eclipse. He played his last 36 matches in a span of just 83 days. Nadal was scheduled to play last week in Hamburg, Germany, but withdrew after suffering a blister on his left hand in the final at Rome. He would have been within his rights, citing general exhaustion.
"With all of the matches he's played, it was a necessary move," Wilander noted. "I think you can play too many matches, but when you're as young as he is, I don't think it matters. I like his chances at the French. I like his chances a lot."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Former French Open champions agree, brawny and bold Rafael Nadal could take home the French Open crown.