- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- His coming-out party took place on one of tennis' grandest stages, in front of a record crowd of 27,000-plus flag-waving countrymen in Seville's Olympic Stadium. On that cool, early December day in 2004, 18-year-old Rafael Nadal Parera stared down the pressure and then-world No. 2 Andy Roddick in the second rubber of the Davis Cup finals, beating the more-seasoned American in four taut sets on red clay to stake his beloved España to what proved to be an insurmountable 2-0 lead.
Nadal's victory made him the youngest player ever, at 18 years, 6 months, to win a singles match in a Davis Cup final. But then Nadal's always been precocious, ever since he picked up a racket at age 4 and began hitting balls with the only coach he's ever known, his uncle Toni.
Growing up on the Balearic island of Majorca, off the eastern coast of Spain, Nadal was also a gifted soccer player. His uncle, Miguel Angel, was known as "The Beast" during a lengthy playing career with Real Majorca and FC Barcelona and played in the past three World Cups for Spain. Eventually a choice had to be made: el futbol or el tenis, and Nadal decided when he was 12 to stake his sporting future as an individual proprietor, taking on the entirety of the potential burdens and glories on his own shoulders.
It turned out to be a pretty wise decision.
At 14, he beat his childhood idol and fellow Majorcan, Carlos Moya, a Top-10 player, in an exhibition match. He turned pro at 15 and won his first Tour-level match two months shy of his 16th birthday. He made his Wimbledon debut at 17 in 2003 and reached the third round, the youngest to do so since Boris Becker in 1984. At 18, he overpowered Roddick in front of his countrymen and hoisted the Davis Cup, and at 19, he won the French Open on his first attempt.
The rest has become tennis history, as Nadal, who turned 20 last week, has launched an assault on many of the game's records and the legacies of many of its former greats. In fact, he's enjoyed so much success at such a relatively young age that comparisons with other tennis greats don't always suffice to speak of his impact on the sporting landscape.
It was impressive when Nadal tied Bjorn Borg's record of 16 ATP Tour titles as a teenager when he beat world No. 1 Roger Federer in a dramatic five-hour final in Rome last month. More impressive still, was Nadal's beating Argentine Mariano Puerta to become the fourth-youngest men's winner at Roland Garros last year, and just the second to win on his first attempt.
Most impressive, perhaps, was Nadal's shattering Guillermo Vilas' 29-year-old record of 53 consecutive clay-court wins, which now stands at 59 and counting, a Cal Ripken-like testament to the Spaniard's endurance, heart and guile.
Tennis-wise, Nadal's accomplishments conjure comparisons to Becker's winning two Wimbledons (1985, '86) before he turned 19; Borg's two French titles (1974, '75) before he turned 20; Michael Chang's 1989 triumph at Roland Garros at 17; and Mats Wilander's 1982 French Open title, also at 17. It's an impressive roster of tennis greats, and portends even more success for Nadal if he stays healthy and continues to relish competing week-in, week-out.
Says Wilander, who knows a thing or two about the subject, having played against the likes of McEnroe, Connors, Lendl and Becker, "I think he's in it because he loves the competition. He loves to improve, he likes to work hard.
"And that's why I think he's going to win more majors. He has the right mind-set."
There's also little doubt that Nadal's chiseled physique is one of his primary weapons. It seems that the sleeveless shirts currently sported by so many young players were custom-made for Nadal and his bulging biceps.
Wilander, still wiry at 41, had to laugh when asked if he was anywhere near Nadal's physical level when he beat Vilas in Paris to win the first of his seven career Grand Slams.
"No, no. I'm still not as physically developed as Rafael is, but I think I was very developed mentally. It's a totally different story."
Nadal's physiotherapist, Juanan Martorell, whose job it is to maintain the smooth functioning of that Ferrari of a body, says, "Physically, he doesn't have the body of a 20-year-old boy, he's already an adult. His big power is his speed/reaction coefficient -- he can repeat often the same sequence in a rally due to his muscular properties."
Wilander believes that Nadal's early success, and the attendant media crush that's accompanied it, are more of a help to Nadal than a hindrance.
"It's way more of a help for him," Wilander says. "He's mature enough to win at a young age, it's going to make him a smarter player, and it's going to make him want to improve even more.
"I think he's doing great, defending the tournament. But I do believe that he needs to win this year's French Open to really feel he has a chance to win other majors. Because if he doesn't win, then suddenly he turns into that clay-court specialist that we don't like in this game."
Outside the realm of tennis, the Majorcan's early exploits beg comparisons, albeit somewhat of the apples-to-oranges variety, to a handful of elite male athletes: U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps (six gold medals at 19 in the 2004 Athens Games); American jockey Steve Cauthen (Sports Illustrated's 1977 Sportsman of the Year at 17, rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown at 18); distance-runner and current Republican Congressman Jim Ryun of Kansas (SI's 1966 Sportsman of the Year, set world-record in the mile, 3 minutes, 51 seconds, at 19); and 1948 Olympic decathlon winner Bob Mathias, who was 17 when he won gold in London.
Feel free to insert other names but any way you frame it, the list is as exclusive as Skull and Bones.
The list grows, of course, when athletes who compete in team sports are added. Names like: Wayne Gretzky (51-86-137, NHL MVP at 19); Dwight "Doc" Gooden (260 Ks, 2.60 ERA in 218 IP in 1984 at 19); and soccer stars Pelé (scored six goals for 1958 World Cup-winner Brazil at 17) and Wayne Rooney (linchpin of English attack and scorer of four goals during Euro 2004 at 18). Throw in LeBron James for good measure. Again, add to this list as you see fit, but it's pretty heady company no matter how you look at it.
All those great athletes possessed a certain something that good and even very good athletes just don't have. The fear or outright hatred of losing, the ability to ramp up their games at the biggest moments on the biggest stages, the knack of making their opponents or teammates raise their level, to name just a few.
With Nadal, it seems to come down to a hunger that can't be sated, a will to win that carries him to places that more ordinary hearts and minds don't dare travel. Spelled out in plain English, the word is heart, and Nadal has an enormous blood-pumping vessel housed within that impressively sculpted body.
"I was speaking recently with Albert Costa (2002 French winner) and we agreed that when we had won 10-15 straight matches, we felt dead and we had to decompress," says two-time French finalist Alex Corretja.
"But not Rafa. He doesn't want to rest. His ambition is unlimited.
"Against him, the opponent isn't playing a tennis match -- he's going off to battle."
ESPN's Brad Gilbert, who formerly coached Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, echoes Corretja's sentiments: "For Nadal, a match is war."
Tom Tebbutt of the Toronto Globe and Mail has been covering tennis since 1975 and rates Nadal's clay-court game favorably to those of players like Borg, Wilander and 1995 French Open winner Thomas Muster of Austria.
He also sounds a cautionary note about getting too caught up in the hype swirling around the Majorcan, while comparing Nadal's game to one of the greatest to ever wield a racket.
"Everybody gets excited about the flavor of the moment but there are no guarantees that he'll win another one of these, let alone enter Borg territory (six French Open titles)," says Tebbutt.
"Nadal does remind me of Bjorn in that there's no way to solve him [on clay]. He's impregnable from the back of the court but he plays more aggressively than Bjorn did."
Sunday at Roland Garros, Nadal will attempt to extend his record winning streak on clay while also denying top-seeded Roger Federer the Roger Slam, victories in four consecutive majors over two calendar years. It will be the first time the pair have met in a Grand Slam final and to say the match is eagerly anticipated would be superfluous.
Tebbutt could be speaking about just a handful of elite athletes when he says, "Borg was freakish in the sense that he was such a great athlete and had exceptional speed and endurance."
Sounds a little like a guy named Nadal, doesn't it?
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Everyone has been caught up in the accomplishments of what Rafael Nadal achieved before his 20th birthday. Everyone except Nadal.