Nadal transitions to grass quite nicely

Rafael Nadal is proving to critics that he is more than just a clay-court specialist. The Spaniard has changed his game to accommodate the grass at Wimbledon, Greg Garber writes.

Updated: July 6, 2006, 3:05 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Nada, in Spanish, means nothing. Nadal, in today's tennis, means everything. He has proved during this fortnight at the All England Club that he can do it all.

The two-time reigning French Open champion came to Wimbledon with little fanfare. Few gave him much of a chance here because clay-to-grass is one of the most difficult transitions in any sport. Yet Nadal has proved to be an astonishingly quick study.

Rafael Nadal
Ian Walton/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is one win from a possible French Open final rematch with Roger Federer.

The 20-year-old Spaniard blistered Jarkko Nieminen 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 at the All England Club on Thursday to advance to a semifinal meeting with Marcos Baghdatis.

"[It] is a surprise [for me to] be in the semifinals, no?" Nadal said afterward. "Is unbelievable tournament for me to be in semifinal of Wimbledon."

Nieminen, a 24-year-old from Finland, has carved out a nice little career for himself. He has won close to $2 million and a tournament in Stockholm, but he has limits. Nieminen is 0-for-16 in matches against players ranked among the top five, and he had never beaten Nadal.

Nadal, we are seeing, is very much The Human Learning Curve.

Last year, even after he won Roland Garros at 19, Nadal was dismissed as the ubiquitous "clay-court specialist" here at Wimbledon. Predictably, he fell in the second round, to Gilles Muller.

A number of prominent Spanish players -- former French Open champions Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero among them -- have paid lip service to Wimbledon. They have talked about wanting to win on the lawns at the All England Club but have done little to prove it.

Nadal seems serious about assimilating the vagaries of grass. The day after winning the French Open, he boarded the Eurostar to London and, despite seven best-of-five matches in two weeks, was practicing at Queen's later that afternoon. He was the first reigning French Open champion to play at Queen's since Ivan Lendl 22 years earlier. And although he retired in his quarterfinal match with Lleyton Hewitt, he made the effort and won two matches.

It has been 26 years since someone won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. Bjorn Borg did it three times during 1978-80, which underlines his greatness. No one -- repeat, no one -- thought it would happen in 2006.

Some people were surprised when the All England Club, which exercises discretionary seeding tweaks, left the No. 2-ranked Nadal as the No. 2 seed, ahead of No. 5-ranked Andy Roddick. Maybe they knew what they were doing.

"Obviously," No. 1-seeded Roger Federer said after his fourth-round match, "if he made the final, that would be quite a surprise."

Obviously?

On clay, Nadal's relentless game of retrieval has produced a record of 60 consecutive wins. Several years ago, when the game here on grass was far quicker, this style would never have been successful. But players say bigger balls and a slower surface have made the traditional venue more palatable for clay-court players. Nieminen's presence in the quarters is part of that trend.

And so, with a few modifications, Nadal's game is grass-ready.

First, he has moved a few feet closer to the baseline to allow for the swifter surface. He has subtly flattened his deadly topspin forehand to send it more quickly through the court. He has punched up his serve to the point that it is actually formidable.

Nadal has been working on hitting a harder second serve -- seen as his greatest weakness -- since the beginning of the year, and it seems to be working. His first serve here at Wimbledon has been a revelation.

In the third round against Andre Agassi, Nadal said he had the best service game of his career. He smashed 18 aces and never faced a break point. His fastest serve was clocked at 129 mph, and the average speed of his first service was a snappy 117 mph. Federer, for example, has reached a top speed of 129 mph and averaged 121 mph on his first service. Federer has authored 46 aces in five matches, while Nadal has 41.

The turning point in the Nieminen match may have come in the fourth game. Nadal forced a break point with Nieminen serving at 1-2 and, running completely off the court, ripped a forehand crosscourt winner.

The match was slowly played on both sides but was never in doubt for Nadal.

"His game is more dangerous on clay," Nieminen said. "But he's playing really well on grass, too. It's really surprising. When he came first on grass, I thought, 'He is not that strong.'"

"I never have a goal," Nadal said. "My goal [was to] come here and play [a] good tournament. My special goal is after the tournament, when I think about the tournament, [to] say, 'Yes, I improve a little bit on this surface.'"

Federer seems invincible as he tries to win his fourth consecutive Wimbledon title, but a Nadal-Federer final has a certain appeal. Nadal has beaten Federer in six of seven matches -- including four this year. And while grass would seem to be the best surface for Federer's talent, with Nadal, nothing seems impossible.

"I have a very difficult match [Friday]," Nadal said. "Is stupid to think about the final, no?"

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.