Nadal a level above rest as Spain's memorable run continues

by | The Sports Xchange/

WIMBLEDON, England -- The reign of Spain stays mainly wherever Rafael Nadal swings a racquet, whether the clay of Roland Garros or the grass of Wimbledon.

Oh, that wrap-around top-spin forehand. Oh, that gleeful fist pump. Oh, that unusual somersault at Centre Court.

"I didn't think about it," he said, shaking his head, when asked about his victory roll. "I just do it."

Nadal celebrates his eighth Grand Slam title. (AP)  
Nadal celebrates his eighth Grand Slam title. (AP)  
What he did earlier was play a clean, brief and very telling men's final Sunday at this 133rd All England Championships. Nadal needed only 2 hours, 13 minutes to defeat Tomas Berdych 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 and prove that, like his place in the rankings, Rafa indeed is No. 1.

The 12th-seeded Berdych, finally a player on the world tennis stage after several false starts, had in this Wimbledon beaten the man who was No. 2, Roger Federer, in the quarterfinals and the man who was No. 3, Novak Djokovic, in the semis. But he had no chance against the man at the top.

"He's really a champion," Berdych said of Nadal, "and he deserved to win today."

That deserved victory gave Nadal, who turned 24 on June 3, wins at the French Open and Wimbledon, a double that, until he accomplished it 2008, had gone unrecorded for 28 years. Bjorn Borg did it three straight times in 1978-80, and now Rafa has done it twice in three years.

"To have this trophy in my hands," said Nadal, holding the gleaming piece up in the sunlight of another beautiful English afternoon, "is more than a dream."

Quite a season for Nadal, who a year ago was on a sofa at his home on the island of Mallorca because of tendinitis in his knees. He was unable to defend. He was unable to play anywhere for months. But this year he's not just playing, he's dominating.

He has won 31 of his past 32 matches. He has won five of the past six tournaments, including two Slams. He has dashed across courts with verve, tracking down his opponent's best and ripping it past him in response.

"To win titles you need to win the very big points," said Nadal. "To win those points, it is very important to have both the will and the calm."

Nadal is an excellent athlete who would have succeeded in any sport. Soccer, for one -- and, yes, he's mad for the Spanish team, which has made it to the World Cup semis. He's strong. He's quick. He forces the issue.

"He was really good," said the 24-year-old Berdych, whose play the past six weeks -- the semis in the French, the final here -- has pushed him to ninth in the rankings.

"I mean, he was strong. I think the biggest difference between us was that when he gets a chance, he just took it. He gave me one in the second set, one in the third, and none of them I can bring to my side and just make a break.

"That shows how strong he is. I think it really was just about the small difference."

Which in the end makes a large difference. With his eighth victory in a Grand Slam -- five French Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open -- Nadal pulls up to the totals of five pretty decent names: Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and the last Brit to win Wimbledon, Fred Perry.

When Berdych was asked if now he considers Nadal the current best ahead of Federer, he replied, "The ranking shows that."

Nadal shows a delightful sense of both humility and playfulness. As after his other triumphs, Rafael was photographed gnawing on the trophy, as if testing to find out if the gold was genuine.

Even though Nadal is right-handed, he plays left-handed. It is just one more reason he is difficult to play. He can pin an opponent back, or he can catch him charging in and pass him.

"I don't have any strategy," said Berdych. "I don't know if you can say there are weaker parts of him. It's not like you go there and know he's going to do something wrong. It's tough to find a special tactic."

For Spain, this has been a special few years. Nadal is at the summit of tennis. His friend Pau Gasol has helped the Los Angeles Lakers win back-to-back NBA championships. Alberto Contador is defending champ in the Tour De France, which just began. And perhaps most significant for any European nation, the country is two matches from winning the World Cup.

"For the past two years," said Nadal, "we have had amazing success on every important sports. So maybe it is a little bit lucky, because it is impossible to have one No. 1 like Pau Gasol, all the unbelievable players of the basketball in Spain."

Not quite as unbelievable, but also not a given, is Nadal winning the U.S. Open in September in New York, which would give him all four Slams.

"Right now I'm very happy with Wimbledon," he said. "We going to think about U.S. Open in one month. The U.S. Open is one of my goals, but right now the goal is to enjoy the beach, fishing, golf, friends, party and Mallorca."

Almost as much fun as turning a somersault at Wimbledon.


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