Nadal closing in on clay-court record

Bonnie DeSimone writes no one has been better during the clay-court season in recent history than Rafael Nadal. Just ask Roger Federer.

Updated: May 2, 2006, 5:07 PM ET
By Bonnie DeSimone | Special to ESPN.com

World No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain is second on another list now, having won 47 consecutive clay-court matches to surpass Bjorn Borg. He stands behind only the 53 straight ticked off by Argentina's Guillermo Vilas almost 30 years ago.

Of course, all those guys are pikers compared to Chris Evert. Her clay court win streak -- 125 matches from August 1973 to May 1979 -- is the longest on a single-surface by any player, male or female.

Nadal will take a breather this week before setting out to chase Vilas at back-to-back Masters Series tournaments in Rome, where he could tie the record if he takes the title, and Hamburg, where he could break it.

Streaks are one handy measure of greatness. Nadal's is the first real threat to Vilas' mark -- set at a brisk pace from May to September 1977 -- in more than 10 years. Germany's Thomas Muster ripped through 40 straight, then another 38, in 1995 and '96.

Longest clay-court win streaks (Open era)
Guillermo Vilas 53 May-Sept. 1977
Rafael Nadal 47 April 2005-current
Bjorn Borg 46 Oct. 1977-May 1979
Thomas Muster 40 Feb.-June 1995

Nadal will be joined in Rome by the three highest-ranked active American players, all of whom will be coming back from a rare three-week in-season break. Fifth-ranked Andy Roddick, No. 7 James Blake and No. 18 Robby Ginepri last played on imported red French terre battue in Houston, where they were trumped by their countryman Mardy Fish at the U.S. Clay Court Championships. (Fish will be going to France to try and qualify for Roland Garros. He's currently not ranked high enough to make main draw.)

Will the now seemingly perpetual U.S. drought on European clay continue? Roddick is the only one of the trio with a respectable career record on the surface, and much of his winning bulge comes from his performance in Houston, where he's won three titles and reached two other finals.

Here's the breakdown on clay:

Roddick: 55-23   (turned pro in 2000)
Blake:     19-22   (2000)
Ginepri:     2-12   (2001)

Andre Agassi, the last U.S. player to win the French Open (1999), won nearly three-quarters of his matches on clay over a 20-year span (152-57), but had announced he would sit out the clay-court season even before his back problems made that moot.

Rafael Nadal
AP Photo/Manu FernandezThe last player to beat Rafael Nadal on clay was Igor Andreev in April 2005.
You could argue that the current crop of Americans would be well advised to concentrate on what they're already good at, but then you'd be arguing with Jim Courier, and he's still quick on his feet.

"There's always hope of getting better if a player is willing to make minor adjustments," the '91 and '92 French Open champion said just before the start of the second leg of his brainchild, the over-30, five-city Champions Series in Boston (Todd Martin defeated John McEnroe in Sunday's final).

Courier admits it's easier to be comfortable playing in the dirt if you start young, as he did at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Fla., floating between hardcourt, indoor carpet and clay.

"We never changed our shoes,'' he said. "We just went out and played tennis, and I was never intimidated by switching surfaces.

"There's a slight change of mentality required, an extra dash of patience. A player has to be prepared to hit one or two extra points to conclude a rally. If you think you've hit a winner, you better not be wiping your brow with your sweatband."

He reasons that as string technology makes the "faster" surfaces slower and ball control from the baseline easier, the gap between clay and hardcourt specialists might shrink. Attacking on a point is still tougher, but "there's no reason why the Americans can't perform better," Courier said. "They're not serve-and-volley players anyway. … It's all about executing and playing smart tennis."

"Andy has underachieved in Europe on clay, and it's not because he doesn't have the ability," Courier added. "But his brother [John, Roddick's coach] has his bag now, and hopefully he'll be a good caddy."

The notable exception to the current U.S. trend is the doubles tandem of Bob and Mike Bryan, who are 77-34 on clay and have won four titles, including the 2003 French Open.

News and notes
Kim on clay: Speaking of the red stuff, world No. 2 Kim Clijsters, fresh from the exhilarating experience of taking out Russia in the Fed Cup quarterfinals two weekends ago, may forego another shot at happiness if the next round is played on clay.

A diary entry on her Web site, www.kimclijsters.com, dropped a polite but far-from-subtle hint to this effect: "I would love to be a part of the team when we will play against the U.S., even though the date is a bit of a problem as it is right after Wimbledon and before Stanford. However, should we be playing on hard court, that Fed Cup tie would be an easy transition and a great preparation for the hard court summer."

Whim-Bull-Dun: As I reviewed the annual debate prompted by those stubborn Wimbledon organizers who insist on paying women less than men, it occurred to me that those of us who find this astounding and repugnant may be missing the boat.

Part of the justification for the gap is that the men play best-of-five sets while women are still skipping their way through that dainty Victorian best-of-three format.

Maybe there's something in this rationale -- call it Whim Bull -- for us girls, or ladies, as we are known at The Championships. An advantage we might pick up here and there. A few ideas:

• Lower clothing costs. Skirts and dresses require fewer yards of material than slacks and suits. Women's shoes? Not as much leather. Let's structure prices accordingly.

• Minutes equal money: Female marathoners put in a little more time than men when they run those 26-plus miles. How about more prize money for that extra time pounding the asphalt? Or for all track events, for that matter?

Freelance writer Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.