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Nadal chasing history

Spaniard could match record in Rome -- over Federer

Posted: Tuesday May 9, 2006 9:23AM; Updated: Tuesday May 9, 2006 12:41PM
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Rafael Nadal is just five wins from matching the record for consecutive victories on clay.
Rafael Nadal is just five wins from matching the record for consecutive victories on clay.
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Rafael Nadal is in hot pursuit of one of the most prolific streaks in modern tennis history this week at the Rome Masters event. After his opening-round victory on Tuesday, the Spaniard needs five more wins on clay to match Guillermo Vilas' streak of 53 set in 1977. Nadal would tie Vilas with a victory in the finals.

The Italian Open is played at the illustrious Foro Italico and should be Nadal's toughest clay-court conquest this year -- the faster conditions favor his main rival, world No. 1 Roger Federer. Nadal and Federer are in the newbie stages of what could develop into the rivalry that men's tennis has lacked in recent years. Surprisingly, Nadal has the upper hand so far, besting Federer in four of their past five meetings (two victories on clay, two on hard courts).

Nadal is the only player who has consistently confounded the seemingly invincible Swiss champion. Their most recent encounter took place two weeks ago in the finals of the Monte Carlo Masters. Nadal barley escaped with the victory, even after dominating for long periods of the match and withstanding some of the classic shot-making and wizardry for which Federer is known. The match, a 6-2, 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 Nadal victory, displayed both players' various, yet contrasting, talents and styles.

Nadal's game is built around a physical prowess that is only matched by his unwavering desire. You can see and hear it on every shot. He shows you exactly what he is feeling every moment on the court, from his constant motion to his Tiger Woods-like fist pumping. His desire to win every point is undeniable; he treats each one like it's a small battle within an even greater war.

Federer is on the other side of the spectrum. He is free-flowing and elegant. He rarely looks ruffled or harried on the court, physically or emotionally. Watching Federer play brings to mind an artist with a blank canvas, waiting to express whatever beautiful masterpiece he has inside of him at that moment. Federer's lone curse is that, like any great talent, he makes everything look so easy that victory is inevitable and only his post-match emotions let you know how human he really is.

If everything works out, Nadal and Federer will face off in the finals on Sunday, with history on the line -- two foils with the chance to add a chapter in what promises to be a great rivalry for many years to come.

Odd and Ends

My two-week European clay-court adventure came to an end in the quarterfinals of the Estoril Open last Friday, when I lost to Spanish clay wizard Albert Portas.

I just got home and I'm filled with great memories and a laundry bag full of clothes with deep red stains. I thoroughly enjoyed both events (check out my report from Barcelona) in which I participated and am very pleased and proud of the progress I made during the two weeks. (Granted, I benefited from a very low starting point and even lower expectations!)

It had been over a year since I played on any type of clay court, and to attempt to compete against the best clay players in the world in Europe was a formidable challenge. Both events were exceptionally organized, with friendly staff, great facilities and appreciative tennis fans. After a few weeks off to train and lick my wounds, I look forward to returning to Paris in a few weeks to the Mecca of clay-court tennis, the French Open at Roland Garros.

Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob is a frequent contributor to SI.com.