Nadal adds to latest frustrations for Fish

Rafael Nadal continues to get better on a surface other than clay. His latest win showed how his game is evolving, while his opponent, American Mardy Fish, suffered a seventh straight loss.

Updated: June 26, 2007, 3:50 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Rafael Nadal is only a month past his 21st birthday, but he already has learned how to command the big moment.

On Tuesday, at the end of a vigorous match with Mardy Fish, Nadal contemplated his first match point. He squinted across the net at Fish, unconsciously reached back to adjust his, uh, pants and calmly blasted an ace down the middle.

Nadal, the No. 2 seed and reigning three-time French Open champion, dispatched the American by a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 score and advanced quietly to the second round. He has won 10 of 13 career matches on grass.

Yeah, it looks as though the kid is getting the hang of this. He bends so low to get the skidding balls that sometimes his back knee actually touches the soft ground and helps stabilize his swing at the ball.

"I play very, very, very good today," Nadal said. "Playing from the baseline was very, very good. Very good forehands. Running good. Feeling good."

For those of you scoring at home -- and we know you are -- that was an extraordinary total of six verys in three sentences. Forgive Nadal for feeling so very good. He's loving life these days because men's tennis essentially has become a two-man monopoly.

For 101 straight weeks now, Roger Federer and Nadal have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2. The two have combined to win the past nine Grand Slam singles titles and six of the seven biggest tournaments this year.

Rafael Nadal
AP Photo/Alastair GrantRafael Nadal improved to 10-3 at Wimbledon with his straight-sets win over Mardy Fish.
Nadal won 81 straight matches on clay, and who ended the record streak? Federer. When Federer reached his second straight French Open final, who beat him to win his third consecutive title at Roland Garros? Nadal. The favorite at Wimbledon? Federer, who has won 49 consecutive matches on grass.

When the two men reached the final here at Wimbledon last year, it was the first time in 54 years that the same two men reached the finals in Paris, then London. It could happen again.

Lost in the wake of Nadal's record performances on clay is this little nugget: In his debut at the All England Club, as a 17-year-old in 2003, Nadal became the youngest man to reach the third round since the hurtling 16-year-old Boris Becker.

Although Nadal is the acknowledged master on clay, his rapid progress on grass surprised many in the game. Today, he is a remarkably successful player on the arcane surface. Remarkable because his greatest offensive weapon, the topspin forehand, is not as effective on grass. Remarkable because the quicker game played on grass works against his brilliant defense. And, not inconsequentially, grass places great stress on the one facet of his game that is something less than sublime -- the serve.

On Tuesday, his serve was a powerful ally. He was never broken and won 89 percent of the points on his first serve. His initial offerings ranged in speed from 115 mph to more-than-respectable 125 mph.

Nadal won the first set fairly easily, but Fish forced a second-set tiebreaker. Fish, 25, has a game that plays well on grass; he has a solid serve and understands the forward-moving, volleying mode grass demands.

At 4-all, he got a bit unlucky. Nadal's shot hit the line and skidded, and Fish could get only a frame on the ball. Then at 4-5, with plenty of time, Fish tried to put too much on a forehand and pushed it into the doubles alley. On set point, Fish overcooked a forehand, sending it long.

That was as close as he got.

For Fish, the past several months have been quite forgettable. In May, he sprained ligaments in his ankle attempting to kick a field goal while visiting the Rhein Fire of NFL Europa. That forced him to miss the French Open. Then, in his first match on grass -- at Queen's -- he drew hard-serving Croatian Ivo Karlovic and lost in straight sets.

At Wimbledon, he was the next player in line after the 32 seeds were handed out. As a result, he drew Nadal in the first round. Now, after the high of reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, he has lost his last seven matches.

As for Nadal, he is dogged by Federer everywhere he goes. They seem joined at the hip. The questions are unending.

Can he reach the Wimbledon final?

"We'll see," Nadal says.

Can he beat Federer on grass?

"Honestly," he said, "I'm going to try my best."

Is the gap closing on grass?

"I don't think so," Nadal said. "Roger has four titles here. He is the best player of the world. I have one final."

Only one month past his 21st birthday, Nadal also has learned how to master the media. In time, he might learn to master Federer at the All England Club.

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.