Nadal Open to doubt

DAVE FULLER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:48 PM ET

Hardly a month goes by without another sports god being outed for tax evasion, steroids, gambling, points-shaving, lying to federal prosecutors or fooling around on the missus.

Lance Armstrong is potentially the latest casualty.

The world’s No. 1 tennis player, Rafael Nadal, though, has managed to keep his off-the-court reputation near pristine.

Dump the words “dirt” and “Nadal” into your favourite search engine and up pops a thousand stories about his invincibility on clay.

Replace “dirt” with “scandal” and what you get is a photo of Nadal kissing Colombian pop-cutie Shakira in a racy music video. Big deal.

Otherwise, the only female companion he has ever been seen cuddling is long-time girlfriend/university student Xisca Perello.

The phrase “tax evasion” elicits a blank screen.

“Drugs”? When investigators raided the home of Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and accused him of supplying several hundred elite athletes — most of them cyclists — with performance enhancing dope, some in the jaded media wondered about Nadal. He being Spanish and all.

Poppycock, it turned out.

“Gambling”? We’re not even sure he plays cards.

Then, Nadal never was one for cutting corners or checking out early.

“I wake up every morning with the hope of practising and improving, hoping to play well another time,” he said recently.

If there was a turning point in Nadal’s life, in his career — one that helped keep him on the straight and narrow — it probably occurred in early 2000, when he was just 14 and living in the small coastal town of Manacor.

That’s when the Spanish Tennis Federation came a-calling, hoping to pry Nadal away from his family and place him in its tennis incubator in Barcelona.

His parents refused, preferring to let Nadal’s uncle Toni — a former pro tennis player — continue mentoring their son. Toni is still his coach today. Rafael? He still resides in Manacor.

It was Uncle Toni who taught the right-handed Nadal to play tennis left-handed — figuring it would give him an advantage.

Eight Grand Slams, 41 titles, $33 million US in tournament earnings and one Olympic gold medal later, Toni clearly was on to something.

While not as graceful as Roger Federer, or as overpowering with his serve as Novak Djokovic, his doubles partner at the Rogers Cup, which begins Monday in Toronto, his booming forehand and ruthless efficiency have made him practically unbeatable.

Except, when it comes to the U.S. Open.

He’s won the French Open five times, Wimbledon twice and the 2009 Australian Open. But Nadal has never advanced beyond the semifinals at Flushing Meadows.

This, however, is supposed to be his year. Spain’s year.

Days after winning Wimbledon, Nadal dashed off to South Africa in time to celebrate Spain’s victory over The Netherlands at soccer’s World Cup.

“I cried like a baby,” he said.

A month earlier, Spain’s Pau Gasol helped the Los Angeles Lakers win the NBA championship. More recently, Alberto Contador captured his third Tour de France while Formula One drive Fernando Alonso, another Spaniard, won July’s German Grand Prix.

“The guy is just an animal,” former tennis bad boy John McEnroe said recently, when asked about Nadal’s 2010 U.S. Open prospects. “He’s mentally and physically incredible and he can definitely do it if he’s in shape.

“But the conditions in New York don’t suit Nadal so well, and he needs his body to hold up.”

Nadal’s health issues — he has tendinitis in both knees — are well-documented. Meanwhile, his most lethal weapon — the ridiculous amount of topspin he is able to create on the ball — is less effective on the low-bounce hard-courts of Flushing Meadows.

Several years ago, San Francisco tennis researcher John Yandell, using high-speed video cameras, calculated that a full-force Pete Sampras forehand resulted in the ball rotating 1,800 times per minute. Federer’s rockets spun 2,700 times.

But no one came close to Nadal’s 3,200 revolutions per minute, explaining why his forehands tend to bounce higher than his competitors’ shots on the clay of Roland Garras or the green lawns of Wimbledon.

Now, with the U.S. Open looming later this month, how Nadal performs, how his knees stand up in his two hardcourt warmups — the Rogers Cup and in Cincinnati the following week — will be a major, if not the storyline in both tournaments.

“For sure, the U.S. Open is going to be one of my goals for the rest of my career,” said Nadal, who won the Rogers Cup in 2005 and ’08.

But Nadal, who was front and centre at Friday’s Rogers Cup draw at Toronto’s CN Tower, insists the Open is not an issue at the moment.

Asked if he thought a strong showing on the hard courts at Toronto’s Rexall Centre would send a message to his U.S. Open rivals, the Spaniard could only chuckle.

“I don’t have nothing to send — not even a text message.”

“The U.S. Open isn’t for three weeks,” he continued. “If I win here (Toronto), it doesn’t mean I’m going to win the U.S. Open. If I lose here, it doesn’t mean I won’t have a chance to win the U.S. Open.”

Whether he triumphs at Flushing Meadows or not, Nadal believes he has already been blessed with victories at Wimbledon and Roland Garros in 2010.

Asked what he wishes for himself now, Nadal responded: “Nothing at all. I am more than happy with what’s happened this year. It’s more than I could dream.

“Now, I just want to stay healthy and continue to play well.”

dave.fuller@sunmedia.ca


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