- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
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Rafael Nadal's recent memories of Wimbledon have been bittersweet.
In 2008, the bulky Spaniard became the first man in 28 years to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same season, making a seamless transition from clay to grass. Downing arguably the greatest player of all time in arguably the greatest match of all time made it even better. Critics who laughed when a fresh-faced Nadal said years back he could prosper on grass were forced to admit defeat.
Twelve months later, Nadal was at home in Mallorca as the sport's most hallowed major unfolded, his famously fragile knees keeping him on the sidelines. He only tuned in for the epic final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, with the former dramatically reclaiming the crown he had temporarily relinquished.
At last week's AEGON Championships, a posh Wimbledon tuneup in west London, Nadal admitted not being able to defend his title was a huge blow, although not for the most obvious reason.
"It was more difficult to accept that I had the injury than not playing Wimbledon, because I wasn't ready to play and try to have a good result," he said. "Maybe with [his health at the time], I wouldn't have been able to win three matches."
All signs point to Nadal recapturing his best days at Wimbledon when the 2010 edition begins Monday. After all, the newly turned 24-year-old restored his dominance at Roland Garros and reclaimed the No. 1 ranking.
Since re-emerging from further knee woes in March, he's gone a sizzling 32-3. Rust might have accounted for one of the losses in Indian Wells, while fatigue probably played a part in his quarterfinal departure at Queen's.
"I think he's the favorite, with just the way he's been playing all spring," Peter Fleming, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 1980 and now a color commentator in England, said in an interview. "He's got a lot of confidence again. Winning the French will have given him a boost."
Nadal didn't drop a set at Roland Garros, a stat that doesn't really tell the entire story. Nadal did enough, not more, to beat a resurgent Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, the ever dangerous Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals and a free-swinging Jurgen Melzer in the semis.
Thus, heading into his much-hyped rematch with Robin Soderling, the Swede who piled misery on Nadal in the fourth round in 2009, more than a few suspected he was there for the taking. If nothing else, Soderling and his big weapons, the thinking went, could push Nadal to four or five sets in the finale.
Instead, Nadal produced some of the best defense of his career in the opening set and a half, saved all eight break points he faced and polished off the unfortunate Soderling in three. In short, he upped his game.
Francisco Roig, Nadal's coach when Uncle Toni isn't around, said his pupil played with a "special feeling in his head."
"Definitely we can't think he won't play well at Wimbledon," Roig said at Queen's. "It's a good opportunity. Sometimes you have to have luck in the draw, especially in the beginning. But he's ready for the battle. He's improved as a tennis player and is playing easier on the court. He understands the game better."
Presumably Roig was referring to Nadal's more aggressive approach from the baseline and other subtle changes, such as flattening the backhand and hitting the serve with more pop.
Mind you, they weren't on show in his Queen's dismissal. Call it a hiccup. Nadal fell to fellow lefty and Spaniard Feliciano Lopez, who's no slouch on grass. The statuesque Lopez, armed with a massive serve, has twice reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
The warning signs were there. A day earlier, Nadal escaped versus the improving Uzbek Denis Istomin.
Following the short hop from Paris to London, Nadal got in limited practice, admitting the sessions were "terrible." Strong winds and on-and-off precipitation were annoyances.
Nadal handled the turnaround fine in 2008, claiming the Queen's title as part of a Federer-like 32-match winning streak. So what's the difference, you ask?
Apart from the extended grass absence, Nadal appeared to invest more mentally into this year's clay-court swing, desperate to nail down a first Slam since the 2009 Australian Open.
Moments after the Lopez tussle, Nadal couldn't wait to return to Mallorca. He vowed to spend last weekend away from tennis, visiting the golf course, mingling with family and friends and taking in the World Cup.
"Since before Indian Wells, I didn't spend one week in that home, so it's going to be a positive thing for me to be there and enjoy a little bit the weather and the island," Nadal said.
The result against Lopez, as well as Federer's surprising loss in Sunday's final of the Gerry Weber Open, won't affect either of the behemoths, Fleming suggested. Hewitt snapped his 15-match losing streak against Federer and handed the Swiss his first loss in Halle, Germany, in eight years.
"Roger and Rafa aren't quite as prepared for all the other tournaments as they are the Slams," Fleming said. "They really peak for those tournaments. Probably Roger didn't play his very best, nor was he expecting or wanting to. He doesn't want to peak in Halle, he wants to peak at Wimbledon."
And if both rivals peak at Wimbledon, the result will no doubt be some sweet tennis -- even if the outcome still must be bittersweet for someone.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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