With Vilas in stands, Nadal makes history

Now that he has set the Open era record for most consecutive clay-court victories, Rafael Nadal can focus on defending his French Open title, writes Greg Garber.

Updated: May 31, 2006, 8:17 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- How much does Rafael Nadal love clay? At one point in his Monday match with Robin Soderling, he asked the chair umpire to call for more of the terre battue from the groundskeepers.

Men's Clay-Court Win Streaks*
63 Rafael Nadal April 2005-current
53 Guillermo Vilas May-Sept. 1977
46 Bjorn Borg Oct. 1977- May 1979
40 Thomas Muster Feb.-June 1995
38 Thomas Muster Aug. 1995- April 1996
38 Ilie Nastase May-Oct. 1973
*Open era (since 1968)

In truth, the request was driven more by the wind swirling around Court Philippe Chatrier than any particular attachment Nadal has for the dirt itself.

Nadal defeated Solderling 6-2, 7-5, 6-1 in a first-round match that seemed far closer than the final result suggested. Maybe it's because Nadal was nervous. History will do that to you.

It was the 54th consecutive victory on clay for the ethereal 19-year-old, breaking the Open era record of Guillermo Vilas. Nadal lost to eventual champion Igor Andreev in the quarterfinals at Valencia last April and hasn't lost since.

"It is special," Nadal noted later. "Is a lot of matches, not one day. Is very difficult. I'm very happy for that."

Vilas was on hand to congratulate Nadal and present him with a glass trophy that provided a cross section of the court upon which he triumphed.

"This, he deserved," Vilas said. "He tries hard. He wants to take his game further."

Nadal is the perfect storm of athleticism and ambition. At 6-foot-1, he is two inches taller and his muscles exhibit far greater definition than a year ago when he won his first French Open title here. He looks more like a linebacker -- OK, a free safety -- than tennis player. And he covers as much ground as any player; on the back of his left shoe it says "Vamos" and on the right is the corresponding "Rafa."

He has hoisted nine tournament trophies in between and has become, by most measures, the second-best male player in the world. It is worth noting that he has beaten the consensus No. 1 player, Roger Federer, five times in six matches.

Rafael Nadal
AP PhotoThe last player to beat Rafael Nadal on clay was Igor Andreev in April 2005.
And so, the achievement, a tribute to the Spaniard's passion and perseverance, raised immediate and obvious questions:

Will Nadal -- who is a sporty 8-0 in matches at Roland Garros -- ever lose here on the celebrated red clay? How many singles championships will he win? Can he eclipse the record six titles of the great Bjorn Borg?

The instant consensus this early in his career trajectory is, well, maybe.

Vilas was asked if he thought Nadal could win a second consecutive title.

"Yes, he can win a lot if he plays the way he plays now," Vilas said.

Mats Wilander -- before Nadal's victory here last year -- said the youngster might seriously challenge for the title for the next decade. Wilander was the first man in the Open era to win the French Open in his debut, winning the first of his three titles in 1982 at the age of 17. Nadal became the second.

But when it comes to the French Open, the only standard worth mentioning on the men's side is Borg. He was a towering presence at Roland Garros, winning 49 of 51 matches and those six titles in a span of eight years, including four straight from 1978-81. He retired at the age of 25 after the 1981 season.

In the wake of Nadal's record-setting performance, it would be easy to say he has a wonderful chance to equal or exceed Borg. The prognosis, for those of you seeking context, is not quite so lovely.

Mary Carillo, the incisive ESPN and NBC analyst, laughed when the Borg comparison was broached.

"If you want consistency, you have to have fitness," she said on a third-story terrace overlooking Court 5. "His body has to be as passionate as his heart and mind."

To this point, anyway, it hasn't been close.

Unlike Borg, Nadal has proved surprisingly fragile. It is instructive that he couldn't play in the first two French Opens he qualified for because of injuries; he damaged his elbow in a 2003 practice when his hitting partner playfully yanked the net up while he was attempting to leap over it. An April ankle fracture took him out a year later.

After playing a tour-high 89 matches last year (winning 79 of them), Nadal was exhausted. He withdrew from the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in late October with a foot injury and didn't return until more than three months later in Marseille.

The champions with remarkable longevity -- Borg, Chris Evert, Andre Agassi -- had pristine games. Borg, for example, was particularly smooth and economical. The savage, headlong nature of Nadal's game is hardly conducive to consistency -- or longevity.

"I love his game," Carillo said, "but it's not exactly tight."

His weapon of choice, a hefty Babolat AeroPro Drive, is a cudgel, really. It is heavier than most on Tour (321 grams) and strung far tighter (24 kilograms of tension), too. That places a lot of stress on his joints. Factor in his slashing game of searing accelerations, his tightly, dense-as-plutonium spinning shots, and you have potential issues.

"I don't know how many he can win," Vilas said in a recent conference call. "Last year he won, so let's see what he does this year. That's the question mark that you have to ask about Nadal, because he's young. He has to repeat himself and win it two, three times. Then you can provide some idea."

Exactly.

Recent results suggest that the rigors of today's professional game are working against Nadal as well. Review the list of recent French Open champions and you will not find much consistency in their results. At the age of 24, Gustavo Kuerten won his third title at Roland Garros in 2001. Since then? His furthest penetration was the quarterfinals only three years later that had the feeling of a last hurrah.

And what of Juan Carlos Ferrero? The King reached the semifinals here in back-to-back years and then progressed to the final and, finally, broke through as champion in 2003, at the age of 23. It seemed at the time he would be a perennial contender, but he followed that achievement with exits in the second and third rounds.

Guillermo Coria, the runner-up to Gaudio in 2004, looked like another usual suspect. He isn't playing this event, because of injury. Gaudio? He could be another one-time wonder after exiting in the fourth round last year.

On Sunday, Byung-Hyun Kim watched the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds' turn around one of his pitches 445 feet to center field. Kim's shame will be exacerbated by history, for it was Bonds' 715th home run, one more than the immortal Babe Ruth.

Playing the role of Kim on Monday was Soderling, a goofy, gangly 21-year-old Swede. He actually had numerous chances to carry off the second set, but Nadal was too tough in the critical moments.

A Reuters story early in the day featured Vilas quotes that sounded a little whiny.

"First of all, Nadal's performance is spanning over two years, which is not the same," Vilas told the news service. "Then, I have the feeling he added easy tournaments on his schedule just for that purpose."

In his press conference following Nadal's win, Vilas said all the right things.

"He's a great player -- he's very good for tennis," Vilas maintained. "He will inspire a new generation of players. Borg and myself, we made the other players train harder. We changed the game in that way.

"He's made the other players better also," he said. "He will make the other players feel they must be tougher."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.