Nadal climbs rankings in big way

Overpowering physique aids teen's move to No. 2


August 29, 2005|By Charles Bricker | Charles Bricker,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

NEW YORK - "Vamos, chico!"

Another winning forehand crashed off the racket of Rafael Nadal and he was screaming to himself over the applause. Then, as he often does, he clenched his fist as if it was wrapped around a 50-pound dumbbell, his bicep expanding to the size of a softball.

"His biceps are bigger than my head," cracked fellow pro Andy Roddick a few days ago as he contemplated the rapid rise of the most photographed man in tennis.

The game has known some oversized teenagers, but none who combined such a supreme gift for the game and an imposing physical presence as the 19-year-old prodigy from Mallorca, who has risen in one astonishing season to No. 2 in the world.

He's not going to make up the 2,655 points required to overtake No. 1 Roger Federer at the U.S. Open, which begins today, but there are a substantial number of wise tennis people who believe he can make the final, and not a few who believe that the strength of his body and game will be enough to win the championship when he gets there.

"You can't ignore power in this game," says Gil Reyes, who has been Andre Agassi's personal trainer for years.

Rodney Harmon, the director of men's tennis for the USTA's High Performance program, first saw Nadal on court three years ago. "He looked like that when he was 16," Harmon said. "He was already a man."

In winning nine tournaments this year, including the French Open, Nadal's scorching forehand, pronounced topspin backhand and tireless running have been analyzed a million times.

But it is his physical strength that is the foundation of his talent and, incredibly, he says he has spent comparatively little time in the weight room.

"One time in the last three weeks," he said Saturday. His uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, says the kid's powerful stature is purely genetic.

"The family is all strong people. My brother was a soccer player for Barcelona and on the national team," Nadal said. "He looks like a bull."

Nothing in Nadal's meteoric rise to near the top of world tennis has had any effect on his amiable nature. He arrived at the Open, where he has twice gone out in the second round, ready for a succession of publicity stops, and it's Uncle Toni who is most responsible for keeping him humble in the face of all the popularity.

"Never has he broken a racket," Toni Nadal said. "Never has he thrown a racket. When he was young, I would drive him a half-hour each way to his training, and it was his responsibility to give back for what he has."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

U.S. Open

When: Today to Sept. 11

Where: USTA National Tennis Center, New York

Top seeds: Men, Roger Federer. Women, Maria Sharapova.

Defending champions: Men, Roger Federer. Women, Svetlana Kuznetsova.

TV: USA Network and CBS

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