Nadal venturing into new waters

Barely into adulthood, Rafael Nadal has been pigeonholed as the best clay-court player in the world. Now he's two wins away from a third consecutive French Open crown.

Updated: June 6, 2007, 9:25 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN,com

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal is a Web-page-hits leader no matter what he does, but there's a particularly charming video of him currently circulating on the Internet, pulled from a French Open pre- and post-broadcast show. In it, a loose-limbed Nadal dances and belts out "La Bamba,'' grinning and goofing like the unselfconscious ham he is.

Yo no soy marinaro, soy capitan, soy capitan, soy capitan, Nadal sings.

Translation: "I'm not a sailor, I'm a captain." No one who has ventured into his territorial waters here would argue.

They say all young people feel immortal; that's why they take chances. How amazing it must feel to be bulletproof and non-risk-averse on the clay of Roland Garros, where even the best players endure their share of bad bounces.

Rafael Nadal
AP Photo/Michel SpinglerRafael Nadal has failed to drop a set through the quarterfinals. He's two wins shy of his third consecutive French Open title.
Nadal is 19-0 at the French Open in the latest of his assorted streaks. He has yet to lose a set at this year's edition. Zooming out on his clay-court season, the Spaniard has played 25 matches on the surface and dropped four (4) sets total, two of them to Roger Federer in the Hamburg defeat that ended Nadal's 81-match march to the sea.

"I think there are just a few players who can not just beat him, but even get a set from him,'' said Carlos Moya, the latest opponent to be sunk by Battleship Rafa, 6-4, 6-3, 6-0 in Wednesday's quarterfinal.

"If he is relaxed for a couple of games, maybe he loses his serve, so that's the only chance,'' Moya said. "But if he's playing focused the whole match and solid the way he did after the first eight games, I don't see many players who can get a set off him.''

The Nadal-Moya match, pitting two Mallorca homeboys 10 years apart in age, provided a ready-made picture frame for storytelling. L'Equipe, the French sports daily newspaper, filled that frame Wednesday with a 1999 photograph of Moya presenting Nadal with a junior trophy.

Moya was then in his early 20s, with what was to be his only Grand Slam victory tucked under his belt. He has the backlit air of a celebrity in the photo, moussed curls tumbling to his shoulders, wearing a blazer and dress shoes. Next to him, the 13-year-old Nadal sports a warm-up jacket, a bowl haircut, a winsome expression and a hint of the muscular build to come in his sturdy legs.

Neither man particularly wanted to explore the psychodynamics of their meeting, taking the standard "we're friends before and after the match and competitors on the court" line. But it's interesting to reflect that Moya, in that ancient photo, was older than Nadal is now.

Nadal, so long the youthful force in the men's game, just celebrated his 21st birthday on June 3. Yet at Roland Garros, he's a two-time champion and thus an elder statesman of sorts.

"And now you think [Novak] Djokovic is the new one, and me not the new one, so just one year less than me, no?'' Nadal said after the match, waggling his eyebrows endearingly as he referred to his next opponent. "So I have a lot of years here, left playing Roland Garros, it's just the third year, no?''

Nadal then frowned briefly, doing some math in his head. He turned to some of the Spanish speakers in the room for a fact-check. "Maybe this one is the fourth or five year, fifth year in the [men's] tour?" he inquired. "I don't know. Fifth? Yeah. Twenty-one, I'm five years, unbelievable. On the tour, very old. But the age is not.''

He has made age irrelevant. Unbelievable. But then, so did the 30-year-old Moya this week, by counterpunching his way back to the quarterfinals in Paris for the first time in three years. The 1998 French Open champion has had a couple of desultory, injury-marred seasons since he helped lead Spain to a Davis Cup title over the United States in 2004.

"I always believed that I had a lot of tennis inside of me that didn't come out yet,'' Moya said. "My goal was to be top 20 by the end of the year. I think it's something that can happen, if I'm playing this way.'' He's not far off, at No. 26.

The tennis inside Nadal is on display for all to see right now, and his mastery between the lines on red clay has spilled out into his people-pleasing, off-court demeanor as well. He's not much of a singer, in truth, but he hits the right notes in just about every other way, especially when it comes to the endless questions about that Other Guy he's expected to play in the final.

A reporter asked Nadal whether his world is better with Federer around, or whether it might be more fun if he didn't exist.

"Well, the second option better,'' Nadal said, smiling mischievously. "But you never know, if Roger's not here, another one … it's always a special motivation to have another one better than you.

"Always, I want to improve, but it's easier if you have a model.''

It takes a lot of power and discipline to carry off the tightrope dance Nadal is doing in this game, barely into adulthood and already pigeonholed as the best No. 2 who might not become No. 1 in history. As the lyrics to "La Bamba'' say, se necesita una poca de gracia. It also takes a little grace. Nadal has that going for him too.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.