Nadal wins record 54th straight on clay

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal's phone rang last week. On the other end was Guillermo Vilas, owner of four Grand Slam titles and the man whose 1977 record for consecutive victories on clay Nadal was approaching.

"I'm angry. You're showing a lack of respect for your elders," Vilas told the Spanish teen, tongue firmly in cheek. "If I see you, I don't know what I'm going to do to you."

Caught off-guard and uncertain whether Vilas was pulling his leg, Nadal stammered for a moment before catching on. Turns out, they saw each other Monday on center court at the French Open, and Vilas greeted him with a hug.

Nadal broke Vilas' mark with his 54th straight win on clay, overcoming a 4-2 deficit in the 68-minute second set and beating Robin Soderling of Sweden 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 at Roland Garros to begin defense of his first Grand Slam title.

"It's a lot of tournaments, a lot of matches," Nadal said. "Getting the record here adds something extra."

"It's satisfying because he knows he's entered tennis history a bit," said Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni. "We know that the main thing is not to break these records, but to win tournaments."

On-court trophy ceremonies are usually reserved for the closing weekend of a major tennis tournament. Yet after finishing off Soderling, Nadal was presented with a rectangular glass box containing the multiple layers of a clay court, and highlights from his French Open championship were shown on the video screens overhead.

A tad over the top? Perhaps. But everyone seemed to agree this is an impressive achievement.

"It may be similar to a Joe DiMaggio streak, where it doesn't seem like it's ever going to get broken," said the No. 8-seeded James Blake, who could face Nadal in the quarterfinals. "To win 53 matches in a row, you can't be a little bit better than the rest of the field. You have to be so far above and beyond."

Vilas, for his part, wasn't all that disappointed to see his record eclipsed. After all, until Nadal began getting close, the Argentine had no idea he even owned the mark.

"They never gave me any trophy or anything at the time," Vilas said, smiling.

Nadal improved to 8-0 at Roland Garros -- he won the title in his debut -- and he hasn't lost on clay since April 8, 2005, against Igor Andreev at Valencia, Spain. There were moments of shakiness against Soderling, particularly when Nadal got broken while serving for the second set at 5-4.

But Nadal reeled off six games to regain control, chasing down ball after ball to the corners. That's one of the traits that make him so tough on the surface, somehow putting his racket on opponents' apparent winners.

"It doesn't matter how many times you think you've put the ball away," Blake said, "it seems like he gets it back one more time."

Blake, who beat Nadal on a hard court at Indian Wells, Calif., in March, eliminated Paradorn Schrichaphan 6-0, 6-4, 7-6 (3) and now faces Nicolas Almagro, who improved to 19-6 on clay this year by beating Wayne Arthurs 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Blake is 3-4 on the surface in 2006 and has never been past the second round at the French Open.

Almagro figures to be a more formidable challenge than Paradorn, whose record on clay fell to 0-6 this year and 12-33 lifetime.

"The next round will be more normal clay-court tennis, and it will be interesting to see how good I've gotten at that," Blake said. "I feel like I've improved so much since last year. I'm
excited to play one of the best clay-courters and see how I can do."

Because clay is considered something of an equalizer, dulling hard strokes and creating longer rallies than on grass or hard courts, Roland Garros often turns out surprising results.

There was little stunning about Monday's happenings, though, with seeded players going 25-3, including wins for Nadal's two immediate predecessors as French Open champion: 2003's Juan Carlos Ferrero and 2004's Gaston Gaudio. No. 16 Jarkko Nieminen quit because of stomach cramps.

Gaudio showed the steady baseline game that helped him win the championship two years ago as he beat qualifier Roko Karanusic 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.

The No. 10-seeded Gaudio has yet to win a tournament this year and arrived in Paris with a three-match losing streak. But he faced little resistance from Karanusic, the 180th-ranked Croatian who was playing in his first tour-level match of the year.

"It was quite easy to win for me," Gaudio said. "It's the first time he plays in Roland Garros, so I made the most of that opportunity."

Karanusic's career tour record fell to 1-12, including 0-5 in majors.

Ferrero beat 17-year-old qualifier Juan Martin Del Potro 6-3, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4. Ferrero, seeded 24th, had 45 unforced errors but also 52 winners.

"I played at a good level," Ferrero said. "I have a lot of confidence with my forehand and my backhand. ... I am 100 percent fit."

No. 13 Nicolas Kiefer improved to 6-0 against Jurgen Melzer by winning 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-1. No. 21 Sebastien Grosjean celebrated his 28th birthday by beating Andrei Pavel 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

No. 11 Radek Stepanek beat Michael Llodra of France 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. No. 31 Dmitry Tursunov, who arrived in Paris with a 1-5 clay-court record this year, swept Jiri Novak 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.

No. 26-seeded Jose Acasuso and No. 32 Nicolas Massu won five-setters. Acasuso edged Fabrice Santoro 6-3, 6-1, 3-6, 1-6, 11-9 in a match suspended in the final set Sunday because of darkness. Massu outlasted Xavier Malisse 6-1, 7-5, 1-6, 4-6, 9-7.