Tennis

Nadal eyes rare French-Wimbledon feat

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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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WIMBLEDON, England

A year ago, he was watching the Wimbledon final on his sofa at home in Manacor on the island of Majorca. This Sunday sees Rafael Nadal return to the cockpit of Centre Court, ready to prove that he can drive himself onward and ever upward in the search for sporting records mere mortals can only dream about.

Last year Roger Federer won the French Open and Wimbledon within a month — a feat only Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Nadal himself had achieved in the Open era. Now Nadal, providing he can beat the increasingly impressive Tomas Berdych, has the chance of doing it more than once. Only Borg has done that with his three doubles between 1978 and 1980.

Many consider it the ultimate test of a player’s greatness — this ability to make the switch from clay to grass, the two most extreme surfaces on which the professional game is played, and dominate two Grand Slams.

One of the most fascinating things about Nadal’s career is the way that he has spurned the attitude of so many of his Spanish predecessors, who made scornful remarks about grass being for cows, and adapted his archetypal clay-court game to a surface that is only played for four weeks in the year.

It was evident when he reached the first of his four Wimbledon finals that he had made greater alterations to his game for grass than he had for hard courts. On hard, he seems reluctant to be as aggressive with his serve and less inclined to use his very serviceable volley than he is while chasing success at Wimbledon. As a result, perhaps, he has yet to reach the final at the U.S. Open.

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And no one will need to tell Rafa that he needs to be as aggressive as possible against the powerful Berdych.

“He hits the ball very hard, very flat,” said Nadal. “No opponent can be more difficult now. He did amazing tournament. Against Federer, against Djokovic, very good performances.”

No argument there. The Berdych we have been watching these last few months, and especially here and at Roland Garros when he made a Grand Slam breakthrough by reaching the semifinal, is the Berdych many of us thought would emerge soon after he beat several top 10 players to win the ATP Masters series title at Bercy in Paris in 2005.

But the following four years produced only four lesser ATP titles and it seemed as if this bright young man from a brainy family — his father is a railway engineer and his mother is a doctor — would never deliver the kind of grades his talent deserved.

But perhaps we were forgetting that Czechs seldom reach the heights early. Jaroslav Drobny was well into his 30's before he won Wimbledon in 1954. Martina Navratilova promised much but delivered little in her teenage years. And Ivan Lendl was 24 — the same age as Berdych is now — before he won his first Slam after failing in five finals.

The great Drobny, considered a professor of the game, once told me, “You must take into account our history. It takes time for us to believe in ourselves, to believe that good things can happen. You could say we are a complexed people.”

POLL

  • Who will win the Wimbledon men's title?
    • Rafael Nadal
    • Tomas Berdych

Berdych might not agree, but then he lives in a different age. There is no doubt it has taken him time to come to terms with his game and his impressive physique and realize just how much he can achieve. A Wimbledon title is now just one match from his grasp, and even if the odds are against him on this occasion we will surely see him challenge for more in the future.

For Nadal the taste of success would be sweet. It was not just his chronic knee problem that kept him away from Wimbledon last year. His parents had split up and — as he admitted this week while talking about how he enjoyed watching last year’s final between Federer and Andy Roddick — he said, “I wasn’t ready to be here. My mind wasn’t there.”

It is now. And it will not be his mind that lets him down if he does not do the expected and win. But it could be his knees. What state are they in?

“I didn’t have problem in the last three matches,” he said. “But pain in second and especially in the third (round). Can be there and can’t be there in one moment. I don’t have control of this. We shall have to see.”

Pain or no pain, the odds heavily favor this amazing athlete taking another step towards being recognized as one of the greatest players of this, or any other, age.

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