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Nadal has no illusions about Wimbledon
Updated: 2005-06-07 09:34

Rafael Nadal will not soon go from kissing the French Open trophy to hoisting the one at Wimbledon. A young man with imagination but no illusions, the Spaniard does not pretend he blithely can transport his successes on clay to championships on grass.

But give him time.

Spain's Rafael Nadal, winner of the French Open tennis tournament Sunday, poses with his trophy in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris Monday, June 6, 2005. [AP]

"I can't challenge for the title," Nadal said candidly when the question was put to him shortly after he won the French on Sunday with a tour de force performance that extended his winning streak to 24 matches.

All those wins came on clay, a surface that perfectly suits his speed afoot, his endurance, his intimidating strength and his creativity. Clay is forgiving of Nadal's rather ordinary serve and gives him time to wind up on groundstrokes.

No teenage man in the Open era has won more consecutive matches — Andre Agassi had held that distinction with 23 — but there is little likelihood of the 19-year-old Nadal extending his streak much further.

That doesn't mean Nadal won't give grass a try or that he won't eventually morph his game to win Wimbledon. Agassi, too, once thought he couldn't adjust to grass. To his great regret, he skipped Wimbledon for three years after losing there in the first round when he was 17 in 1987.

Yet Agassi came to realize that, even if he lacked the big serve-and-volley game expected of men's grass court champions, he had other attributes that would work in his favor. His incomparable return of serve, his quick, short groundstrokes, and his control of rallies brought him the Wimbledon championship in 1992 — the first of the eight Grand Slam titles he has won.

Nadal is capable of making a similar adjustment. He has to crank up his first serves and he has to learn how to pick up the low, skidding shots he will see on grass, especially the first week when the lawns are still green and slick. If the weather is hot and dry — a rarity in recent years — the balls will bounce higher and more to his liking.

He reached the third round at Wimbledon in 2003, then missed last year's tournament at the end of his recovery from a stress fracture in his left ankle. This year, he is committed to playing and to elevating his game on grass to make him, like No. 1 Roger Federer, a man for all seasons and surfaces.

To that end, Nadal traveled to Halle, Germany, on Monday to work on his grass game. He revels in the possibilities, enjoying the prospects of rolling on the lawns and picking up grass stains the way he rolled on the clay and covered himself in red dust.

"I like a lot play in grass," Nadal said in his fractured English. "I know is not my best surface, is a little bit fast. I want to improve the serve and the volley, and for that I'm going go play in grass one or two tournaments before. And doubles, too."

The more the better.

Nadal already has shown he can handle hardcourts with aplomb. He came close to beating Federer at Key Biscayne, Fla., two months ago, winning the first two sets and coming within two points of victory before losing in five sets.

Deep groundstrokes, heavy topspin and the unfamiliar angles of a left-handed player had Federer in trouble until the teen started tiring. Nadal seems to be getting stronger all the time now, and he will be a threat in New York to take away Federer's U.S. Open title.

Before the hardcourt season comes, though, there is the brief time on grass. No surface has so few tournaments and offers so short an opportunity to learn how to play on it. Once it was the king of courts. When Rod Laver won his two Grand Slams in the 1960s, three of the majors — Australia, Wimbledon and the U.S. — were still being played on grass.

Now the stuff has become the domain of the few who find out how to master. Pete Sampras won half of his 14 majors there — he never did win the French — and Federer has won the last two.

John McEnroe, winner of three Wimbledon titles, says he hasn't seen a teen as intimidating as Nadal since Boris Becker burst on the scene in 1985 to win the first of his three Wimbledons.

Yet there is another great player to whom Nadal also has drawn comparisons — Bjorn Borg. Like the Swede, Nadal hits with big, heavy groundstrokes, seems to have an instinctive sense about how to construct points, and has the quickness to track down shots that appear impossibly out of reach.

Borg won the first of his six French Open titles just 10 days after he turned 18 in 1974. He didn't turn around, though, and win Wimbledon right away. He lost in the third round that year and the quarters the next. Then it was time to roll — five straight Wimbledon titles before losing to McEnroe in 1981.

On grass, Borg abandoned his baseline mode and ventured to the net. He didn't hesitate to volley. There's no reason to think that Nadal, already an accomplished volleyer, can't do the same.

Nadal isn't ready to win Wimbledon — not this year, anyway. Centre Court still belongs to Federer. But don't be surprised if someday Nadal claims it as his own.

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