One for the thumb for King Nadal

5/22/2009 - Tennis

Repeating a championship is one of the most difficult feats in sport.

In 2005, Tiger Woods won the Masters. He is 0-for-4 since. In 2005, Jeff Gordon won the Daytona 500. He is 0-for-4 since. In 2005, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. They are 0-for-4 since.

These are all top athletes in their particular arenas, and they couldn't accomplish it. Defending a prestigious title is a deathly sharp, two-sided blade; not only is there a tendency to relax into self-satisfaction after the strenuous effort a championship requires, but opponents are also more energized when playing the reigning king.

Ivan Lendl, the great Czech tennis champion, reached the final of the U.S. Open for eight consecutive years, from 1982 to '89, winning three in a row in the middle of that glorious run. Lendl also played in four straight French Open finals, winning three of them. A four-set loss to Mats Wilander in 1985 cost him the chance for a rare fourth straight.

All of which makes the accomplishments of 22-year-old Rafael Nadal seem even more remarkable. When the French Open begins next week in Paris, Nadal will find himself on the threshold of winning his fifth consecutive title at Roland Garros.

"Five titles is pretty amazing at any Grand Slam, for anybody, never mind how old they are," Lendl said recently, laughing at the thought. "Five in a row? That's phenomenal.

"He is the prohibitive favorite. Things being normal, I think he wins again."

The good news for the other 127 guys competing for the title on those lovely, leafy grounds west of the city? Nadal is getting older.

Yes, like so many men of a certain age, his shorts are getting shorter and his shirtsleeves are getting longer. By the end of the fortnight he will be a creaking and increasingly inflexible 23-year-old.

No one will be terribly surprised if Nadal wins at Roland Garros, but, historically speaking, there is a terrific degree of difficulty in play here. No one -- not Bjorn Borg nor Gustavo Kuerten nor Rene Lacoste, the beloved "Crocodile" -- has ever won one for the thumb. Roger Federer, against most odds, pulled off the dramatic five-in-a-row at last year's U.S. Open.

"I think it is hard to appreciate [what Nadal has done]," said Jose Higueras, the revered clay-court coach who was working with Federer a year ago in Paris. "Talking to tennis people, the toughest Grand Slam to win is the French because of the physicality and how it works on the mind.

"What Rafa has done is unbelievable. He is, with Borg, the best clay-court player I have seen in my career."

In the history of Roland Garros, which stretches back to 1925, Bjorn Borg has come the closest to winning five in a row. The Swede took four straight trophies from 1978 to '81 but vacated his title at the age of 25 and never played for a fifth.

"We always thought Borg's four straight would be the standard," said Bud Collins, the venerable tennis aficionado. "It's incredible what Rafa's doing. He should get by the French -- halfway to a Grand Slam."

When Nadal careens and slides around the vast expanse of red clay on the floor of Court Philippe Chatrier, he looks like a seal joyously splashing through icy ocean water.

It is a venue seemingly designed precisely to his extraordinary specifications. The world's largest clay court is barely enough to contain the sheer force of Nadal's enthusiasm. It gives him the time and space to practice his relentless defense; unwavering patience; and, when the opening presents itself, aggressive power.

"From an historic perspective, he's the best competitive athlete I've ever seen -- in any sport," said Paul Annacone, head men's coach for the Lawn Tennis Association of Great Britain. "You can talk about team sports, but you have teammates, a default mode where you can get assistance.

"In tennis and golf, you are all alone. Tiger Woods and Rafa are at a whole different level. There's no question the fuel will be in the gas tank, that the resiliency won't wane."

Nadal has won each of his 28 career matches at Roland Garros, dropping only seven sets in the process. Last year, Nadal did not lose a single set; Novak Djokovic, who took him into a tiebreaker in the third set of their semifinal, came the closest to converting. Moreover, Nadal lost only 41 games in his seven matches, meaning his average score was 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.

The next best-of-five match on clay that Nadal loses will be his first. Including Roland Garros; the Davis Cup; and tournaments in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Stuttgart, he's an unimpeachable, almost unfathomable 43-0.

"I remember conversations I used to have with Pete," said Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras for eight years. "There's something about those guys in three-of-five matches. In an unbelievable, simplistic way, Pete just felt like he was better. There was no panic mode -- even down two sets.

"They're thinking, 'It doesn't matter how I'm playing, because eventually I'll find a way to win.' Pete, and now Rafa, they believe that. Rafa is all this relentless energy coming at you. You have to be thinking, 'When is this guy going to show any kind of negativity or a sense of adversity?'"

Nadal lost on clay for only the third time in four years this past Sunday, falling to Federer in straight sets in the Madrid Open final. That ended a 33-match winning streak on clay, leaving Nadal 150-5 on the dirt since 2005 and 25-2 in clay-court finals.

Fifty-four years ago, American Tony Trabert won his second consecutive French Open title.

"Five in a row, at 23 years old?" Trabert said from his home in Florida. "You have to salute him and say maybe he's the best clay-courter who ever played."

Lendl says it is conceivable that Nadal could win three or four more titles at Roland Garros. Throw in one or two more championships each at Wimbledon, Australia and the U.S. Open, and …

"Go ahead, add it up," Lendl said. "What do you get?"

Conservatively, 12. Optimistically, 16. Sampras holds the record with 14 major titles; Federer has 13.

"In my opinion, he is a threat to beat the 14," Lendl said. "The question is, and this is very hypothetical at the moment, if he's healthy. I am not prepared to say, 'Yes, he will do it.' But two years ago you wouldn't have found a single person who would say that Federer would not pass Sampras.

"I will watch this very closely."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.