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This kid ain't bad

My first matchup with Nadal was a whole lot of fun

Posted: Monday September 19, 2005 12:26PM; Updated: Tuesday September 20, 2005 12:37PM
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Rafael Nadal
Gimelstob says Rafael Nadal still has some rough edges. But once he matures, look out.
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Outspoken ATP tennis pro and frequent SI.com contributor Justin Gimelstob won his 13th career doubles title on Sunday at the China Open along with partner Nathan Healey. Click here to read all of Justin's columns.

BEIJING -- Rafael Nadal is definitely a star.

How do I know? Well, there's the obvious: The 19-year-old Spaniard won his 10th title of the year on Sunday, beating Guillermo Coria 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 in the final of the China Open.

But I also can tell you first-hand. I faced Nadal in the second round of the singles competition here. In fact, I took the first set and had a slight lead in the second.

But this kid is good; he came back to beat me. I have to be honest, though: I thoroughly enjoyed competing against the No. 2-ranked player in the world.

Beyond Nadal's obvious physical tools, his passion and youthful exuberance have electrified the tennis world this year. His power-baseline game and intensity remind me of former greats Thomas Muster and Jim Courier, but Nadal has a higher degree of artistic flair and less petulance.

The amazing thing about Nadal is how good he is at such a young age and how much he still can improve. He hits the ball incredibly heavily because of the racket acceleration he uses on every shot. But because he is so used to playing on clay courts, he has a tendency to play too far behind the baseline on hard courts and therefore misses opportunities to take the ball early and attack the net.

When he gets more comfortable moving up in the court, learns how to flatten out his backhand, gets more proficient at ending points at the net and develops his serve into a bigger weapon, it could be scary for the rest of the ATP Tour. I found that my best opportunities to frustrate him were to try to take away his timing and attack the net as much as possible. He does tend to hit a lot of balls short, which allowed me to move up in the court and attack.

Unfortunately for me, his passing shots and defensive skills are awesome. He hit a few shots on the dead run that made me shake my head in amazement.

Less is more

There's no doubt that tennis' annual international competitions -- the Davis Cup and Fed Cup -- are incredible events. Elena Dementieva's star turn in guiding Russia to back-to-back Fed Cup titles was a real thrill. But these events are are drowning because the International Tennis Federation refuses to scale them back to every two years (similar to the Ryder Cup in golf).

For players, representing our countries is an incredible honor and the competition is intense and great fun. But holding these tournaments every year dilutes the excitement and takes away the novelty. It also makes players less enthusiastic about cramming an event into an already-packed tour calendar.

The ITF argues that smaller countries (like Zimbabwe, Belarus and Romania, to name a few) rely on the income from these events to support development of the game in their countries. That's certainly true, but I believe that holding these events less frequently actually would increase the financial opportunities. There would be more time to build up anticipation and exposure, through TV rights, major-media coverage and corporate sponsorship. That would also build the prestige of the competitions, which would make players more excited and willing to participate.

The semifinals of the Davis Cup this weekend pit Argentina against Slovakia, and Croatia (which upset the U.S.) against Russia. Because the U.S. lost in the first round, we are playing a relegation match against Belgium that we need to win to advance to the main draw of the world group in 2006. The matches this weekend should be exciting, but, sadly, I doubt they will get the exposure or generate the interest they deserve.

OK, enough of my ranting. Let's talk about the actual tennis! The U.S. has a great team consisting of Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan twins. They'll be playing against a tricky Belgian team on indoor red clay. Still, I look for the Americans to win convincingly and, in '06, take the Davis Cup home where it belongs -- in the USA!