Don't bet against Rafa on hard courts

Updated: January 23, 2009

No hard-court slouch

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Rafael Nadal's famous pedal pushers have been replaced by a pair of baggy, royal blue shorts, and his chestnut locks have recently seen a scissor. But except for those adjustments, the world No. 1 is looking very much himself, right down to the bandaged rickety knees and his obsessive habit of pulling on his wedgie before every point served.

The Spanish sensation certainly looked every inch the best in the business when he cruised through his second-round match 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 against little-known Croatian Roko Karanusic.

Until last year, tennis pundits were content to view Nadal as the clay-court impresario, a pretty good judgment call for a guy who has won four consecutive French Open titles. But opinion had to be altered when Nadal pulled off a stunning achievement by becoming the first player ever to score the French Open-Queen's Club-Wimbledon trifecta.

So what's left for the top gun to prove? Well, how about a proficiency on hard courts at the most prominent hard-court tournaments in the world, i.e., the Australian and U.S. Opens?

Greg Wood/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has improved his result each year in Australia, including a semifinal finish in 2008.

If anyone doubts that Nadal can perform to a Grand Slam standard on hard courts, we advise against it. The fact that he's never done better than a semifinal finish -- at both of the hard-court Slams last year -- should not be considered an ominous omen.

Here's a record that should assure fans that Nadal is a capable player on cement: He led the tour in 2008 with his 46-10 hard-court record, winning the Olympic gold medal as well as the prestigious Toronto title and reaching the final at Miami for the second time in his career.

Nevertheless, as expected, when questioned about his abilities to win his first Australian Open title this year, Nadal exhibited his usual unassuming nature.

"Well, I gonna try, no? For sure, I think when you think you win in Toronto, you win in Olympics, I have Montreal, I have Madrid, I have Indian Wells in this kind of surface. When you [win] these tournaments playing against the best players of the world, in these tournaments, why can't you win a Grand Slam in hard court, no?

"I always try. Trying to improve always on this surface. Hopefully in this year [I] have a chance for win here or for win in the U.S. Open."

Nadal takes a basic approach to many things, so in his mind hard court is hard court -- there's no reason to dissect the possible playing differences between the Australian Open and U.S. Open surfaces. The only priority is trying to get the job done.

Next up on Nadal's agenda is Tommy Haas; Nadal has never dropped a set to Haas in three career matches.

But Haas, whose career has been marred by injuries, flirted with the top of the ATP ranking charts in the past, obtaining a career high No. 2 in May 2002.

So, not surprisingly, Nadal has no plans of taking their third-round match lightly.

"I think he's a very complete player," said Nadal. "He can do everything. If I want to win, I have to put more rhythm and intensity than him."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Five things we learned on Day 5

1. Murray has a tongue: A little trash talking at the top of the men's game? How nice for a change.

This week, defending champion Novak Djokovic said he didn't consider Murray -- who has defeated the Serb, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in his past six matches against them -- a favorite for the title. Federer was also a tad puzzled that Murray is getting plenty of attention.

Murray replied like this: "They say there's a lot of pressure on them, but then people aren't saying they're the favorites, but they want to be the favorites. Therefore, by saying they're the favorites, they're putting more pressure back on themselves. I don't really understand the whole thing. But there's a reason why people think I have a chance to win here, because I played very well the last few months and won against them."

Nadal isn't among the detractors. After losing to the Scot in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi this month -- it was a fiercely contested encounter -- Nadal said Murray had a good shot of claiming his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne.

2. The joker is stuttering: Djokovic, by the way, also said he was one of the favorites. But his current form might say otherwise.

He sputtered for the third straight match, needing four sets -- it was almost five -- to see off American Amer Delic, a Bosnian-born resident of Jacksonville, Fla. Djokovic continued to struggle on serve, conceding nine break points against the lucky loser ranked well outside the top 100.

At first, Djokovic said he was glad he got a tough test. Then he came to his senses.

"I didn't really plan to be that long on the court," he uttered. "You always want to finish the job as soon as possible."

The tough work starts now.

3. There's no time for family fun: Wherever she goes, Dinara Safina is inevitably asked about big brother Marat Safin, a colorful two-time Grand Slam winner.

The two don't spend much time together thanks to their mostly conflicting schedules, and it's no different at Grand Slams.

"I don't like to bother him, you know, to go for dinner," said Safina, who is into the fourth round. "He has his company, I have my company. Once the tournament finishes, yeah, we can all go together."

Safina was then asked if she stayed in the same hotel as Safin.

"We do live in the same hotel," she said. "But we're not sleeping in the same room."

4. Del Potro is worth watching: With all the talk of the big four and big four Frenchman, Juan Martin del Potro almost invisibly reached the fourth round with, what else, a four-set win over Gilles Muller. The big-serving Muller has a reputation for pulling off upsets in Grand Slams -- think Nadal, Andy Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko -- so it never promised to be a cakewalk.

Del Potro, who propelled into the top 10 not long after a 23-match winning streak last summer, is in the same quarter as Federer.

"I'm playing good since last year," the Argentinean No. 1 said. "But I need to play better if I want to beat Nadal, Federer, Murray or Djokovic."

Del Potro faces fellow young gun Marin Cilic on Sunday.

5. It wasn't a good day for security: Besides a skirmish erupting between Serbians and Bosnians following Djokovic's win over Delic, a male streaker invaded Court 3 as Venus and Serena Williams met Ayumi Morita and Martina Muller in a second-round doubles match. According to Australia's The Age, it happened during a change of ends in the second set.

"He made no movement toward the players and carried no weapons of any kind," the newspaper reported. "He just skipped across court and then doubled back. But he was on the playing surface for 40 seconds before any security guards came to remove him."

-- Ravi Ubha


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It's all in the stringing

Federer

A conversation with Nate Ferguson -- a custom stringer from Priority One, a Zephyrhills, Fla.-based company -- revealed some interesting info on who likes their rackets strung loose and who likes it tight enough to the point it seems like the strings are dead. Many players will go on court with rackets that aren't all strung at the same tension to be prepared to compensate for weather and court conditions.

So in case you want to try a tension that's similar to the stars, here's the info you need to pretend you're Roger Federer, Marat Safin, Novak Djokovic or a number of other players:

(The first number is the main string tension, the second the cross string tension -- tension is given in pounds.)

Roger Federer (44/41): Federer strings loose for feel and extra zip on his topspin strokes, but bear in mind, he plays with a smaller head racket and strings with half gut, half synthetic.

Andy Murray (62/62): Murray likes variety in his bag, so he is known to fluctuate between 60-64 pounds.

Marat Safin (61/59): He prefers dead strings because he generates his own power.

Mardy Fish (55/55): However, Fish went on court against Marcos Baghdatis with rackets strung at 54, 55 and 56 pounds.

Here's a few more tensions: Novak Djokovic: 62/60; Marcos Baghdatis: 50/54; Gael Monfils: 50/48; Stanislas Wawrinka: 66/62; Fernando Gonzalez: 50/50.

In case anyone is wondering, No. 1 Rafael Nadal uses the tournament stringing service rather than a private service such as Priority One.

Brawl on the grounds

Djokovic

There was a brawl between about 15 fans throwing chairs at each other in the garden area designed for people to relax at the Australian Open on Friday. It was thought to be a clash between Serbian fans supporting Novak Djokovic and Bosnian fans supporting the Bosnian-born American, Amer Delic.

Two men were charged on a summons by police and another one was cited for riotous behavior. One woman was knocked out but refused to press charges, raising the question that perhaps she was part of one of the groups. All participants were ejected from the ground.

"There's no place for that here," said a dismayed Delic about the clash.

Super Bowl prediction

Blake

As it turns out, James Blake has not strayed very far from close friend Mardy Fish's prediction as to who will win the Super Bowl. Ordering a sandwich for lunch in the player's lounge, Blake weighed in on the upcoming game to be held in Tampa. "I think Pittsburgh's going to do it. Their defense is going to shut [Arizona] down. But I'm just disappointed that the Giants aren't there."

Fish has predicted a Steelers blowout.

Friday in the Down Under news

Dokic

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Jelena Dokic's father, Damir, banned from the WTA Tour because of numerous incidents when he was still in his daughter's good graces, hung up on the newspaper when reached by phone for a reaction to his daughter's advancing to the third round at the Australian Open. The newspaper also said the elder Dokic reportedly is selling his property outside of Belgrade in order to raise money to open a tennis academy for juniors. Given his reputation, as well as comments made by his estranged daughter this week, the paper speculated that enrollment will not be overwhelming.

The Sydney paper also addressed the critique of Australian player Casey Dellacqua, who has been criticized for being overweight and not in shape. Apparently, Roger Rasheed, the former coach of Lleyton Hewitt, didn't mince words in saying Dellacqua carries "excess baggage," a comment that was backed by 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. Dellacqua, who has been nursing a shoulder injury, was appalled by the remarks, and the paper quotes her as saying, "I have never met Roger Rasheed. He does not know me or my tennis. He does not know my training technique, my background or my personality. … He has never bothered to even introduce himself, let alone offer advice on any aspects of my tennis."

Critic's choice

Gasquet

No. 13 Fernando Gonzalez vs. No. 24 Richard Gasquet: It's hard not to like the possibilities in this first-time matchup between two former top-10 players. The problem is that both have periods of play when they forget to stick to top-10 form, which explains their ranking inconsistencies. Gonzalez was a finalist here in 2007 and possesses a serve that, when it's on the money, is capable of leaving any opponent quaking in his sneakers. Gasquet is a bona fide talent, but his spoiled personality hasn't helped his advancement in the game.

ESPN.com prediction: Gasquet in five.