- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Rafael Nadal is still only 20 years old and is the best tennis player in the world not named Roger Federer. So why was he on the defensive three weeks ago after winning the ATP Masters Series event at Indian Wells, Calif.?
Because Nadal's straight-sets victory over Novak Djokovic in the final ended a stretch of 12 tournaments and eight months without a title that went back to his second consecutive victory at the French Open last spring.
"Seven Master Series is very good and two Grand Slams is very good, no?" Nadal said, running down his résumé. "Sometimes the people forget I [am] 20 years old. I have 17 titles in two years. I just have to again improve my tennis. And sometimes when you are improving, it's not easy to win."
Nadal's win on the fast, hard desert courts featured an eye-opening semifinal victory over Andy Roddick and left no doubt that he is a better, stronger player than ever. We mention this because hard courts are usually death for clay-court specialists. Next week, the left-hander from the Spanish island of Majorca returns to the womb, the sweet earth that serves him -- perhaps more than any man in history -- better than any other surface.
When Nadal steps on the stadium court at the stately Monte-Carlo Country Club, he will be riding a wave of unprecedented momentum. He will not have lost a match on clay in more than two years. His streak of 62 straight wins is the best of the Open era (dating back to 1968) and easily surpasses the great Guillermo Vilas' 53 straight in 1977.
Jim Courier knows a little something about playing on dirt; he won titles on the red clay at Roland Garros in 1991 and 1992. These days, he's competing on the Outback Champions Tour against old foes such as Mats Wilander, Todd Martin and Pete Sampras.
"It's an amazing streak," Courier said recently from Naples, Fla. "Clay is such a difficult surface to be successful on these days. There are a lot of surface specialists, none more than clay. It's a grinding surface. You have to be healthy and mentally tough, day in and day out, to beat guys down.
"On clay, you're vulnerable at all times because you've got to work so hard. That's why I'm so impressed."
In eight weeks last spring, Nadal put together a stirring string of 25 victories on clay in tournaments at Monte Carlo; Barcelona, Spain; Rome; and Paris. In three of those finals, he beat Federer. The five-set, 5-hour-and-5-minute final in Rome is widely considered the best match of the 2006 season.
In all, Nadal has won 10 straight tournaments on clay, plus four Davis Cup matches. The closest he came to losing was in the 2006 quarterfinals at Barcelona, when Jarkko Nieminen won the first set and was up 4-1 in the second. Nadal won 11 of the last 14 games to escape with a victory.
Nadal has beaten 45 different players in the streak, defeating Federer four times and Argentines Guillermo Coria and Gaston Gaudio three times each.
"That's a nice little run he's got going," analyst Mary Carillo said. "I am a huge respecter of consistency. And, to me, that's as good as you can get. I think clay is the greatest testament to somebody's commitment to the sport.
"What's really impressive about that is that there are so many good clay-court players. Clay requires you to really have to show up for every match and know it's going to be a grind."
Martin, who mentioned that his longest win streak on clay comprised five matches, agreed that Nadal's consistency is most impressive.
"More than any other surface, on clay you have to be your best on that surface, always," Martin said. "Those guys who make it to the semifinals aren't household names, but they are great clay-court players.
"When Nadal wins all those tournaments in a row, he is playing two and three of the best clay-courters each week. That is something you have to respect."
Nadal has a mental edge in that he is not built like most tennis players. He is 6-foot-1, 188 pounds and heavily muscled. After winning the French Open last spring, he looked as if he had just played three hours of rugby. His left index finger was taped, his long brown hair was matted, and his thick arms and shoulders were covered with red dirt.
Nadal's physical gifts are perfectly suited to a surface that keeps balls in play and demands long rallies. He is unnaturally quick to the ball, has a relentless motor and hits hard from both sides.
"He's got a great weight of ball," Courier said. "He can push people away from the baseline and force them to play defense. In the [2006 French Open] final, playing Roger, getting him to net, he almost knocked Roger's racket out of his hand. I came out of my chair and went 'Oooh.'
"He's also an incredible defender. The shots he hits on the dead run, that backhand passing shot off his shoelaces, nobody has that shot in today's game."
Perhaps even more important is Nadal's mind-set.
Not only is he able to slug it out for hours but he is more than willing to do it. In today's world of professional tennis, that attitude is increasingly rare.
"He's one of the greatest ever, physically," Alex Corretja told ESPN.com at last year's French Open. "Mentally, he's even better. The main reason he's winning these matches is mental."
Added Wilander, who also was in attendance at Roland Garros, "That's why I think he's going to win more majors. He has the right mind-set."
Indeed, Nadal is motivated to improve his game. Asked for specifics at Indian Wells, Nadal offered this assessment:
"Always the same ones. The serve. Every year, I improve more and more. I am trying to play a little bit more aggressive this year. And I can improve for sure the volley, improve a little bit the slice, improve a little bit the backhand. But, especially, the mentality for play with my forehand. And I am doing that."
Yes, he is. Nadal served 10 aces in a win over Arnaud Clement at Indian Wells and hit one serve 126 mph. Against Roddick, Nadal's heavy forehand down the line was scary. If he continues to play aggressively and improve those weapons, he will win more titles on hard courts.
Although Nadal passed on the brief clay-court swing through South America the past two (Northern Hemisphere) winters, early word from his camp is that he might return to his clay roots in 2008, opting to play in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Costa do Sauipe, Brazil; and Acapulco, Mexico, in lieu of events in Marseille, France; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Although adding more hard-court tournaments clearly helped round out his all-court game, Nadal will always have more success on clay, and it will be easier on his body. There are times when Nadal tries to slide on hard courts as he would on clay, a habit that is tough on the ligaments of ankles, knees and hips.
Nadal was expected to appear in another event on hard courts, the Davis Cup quarterfinals between Spain and the United States, but missed the match because of a lingering foot injury. This gives him one less week on a hard court and one more preparing for the clay-court season. The extra prep time, combined with Federer's back-to-back losses to Guillermo Canas, makes Nadal the solid favorite at Roland Garros.
According to Nadal's good friend and publicist Benito Perez-Barbadillo, Nadal gained significant confidence from winning at Indian Wells.
"We needed it," Perez-Barbadillo said, laughing. "It took away a lot of bad thinking. You know, 'When am I going to win again?' Of course, he's more effective on clay because it's his natural surface.
"This is a natural progression, I suppose. You'll remember that his dream was always to win Wimbledon. So, to say that he's just a clay-courter is not correct."
But "I can tell you," Perez-Barbadillo added, "that he's looking forward to the clay-court season."
Nadal says he is playing better than in 2005, when he won 11 titles.
"I am a more complete tennis player, no?" he said.
"With Rafa, it's a question of confidence," Courier said. "He has not played on clay since last year's French Open. I thought he was tired the second half of the season. In the Australian Open, he had no confidence.
"He's a different player on clay, though. I think he'll regain some confidence once he gets back on the dirt."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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