For Nadal, a feat of clay

First-round victory in French Open gives Spaniard record 54th consecutive win on the surface

May 30, 2006

Rafael Nadal's phone rang last week. On the other end was Guillermo Vilas, owner of four Grand Slam titles and the man whose 1977 record for consecutive victories on clay Nadal was approaching.

"I'm angry. You're showing a lack of respect for your elders," Vilas told the Spanish teen, tongue squarely in cheek. "If I see you, I don't know what I'm going to do to you."

Caught off-guard and uncertain whether Vilas was joking, Nadal stammered for a moment before catching on. Turns out, they saw each other yesterday on center court at the French Open in Paris, and Vilas greeted him with a hug.

Nadal broke Vilas' mark with his 54th straight win on clay, beating Robin Soderling of Sweden, 6-2, 7-5, 6-1, at Roland Garros to begin defense of his first Grand Slam title.

"It's a lot of tournaments, a lot of matches," Nadal said. "Getting the record here adds something extra."

On-court trophy ceremonies usually are reserved for the closing weekend of a major tennis tournament. Yet after finishing off Soderling, Nadal was presented with a rectangular glass box containing the multiple layers of a clay court, and highlights from his French Open championship were shown on the video screens overhead.

A tad over the top? Perhaps. But everyone seemed to agree this is an impressive achievement.

"It may be similar to a Joe DiMaggio streak, where it doesn't seem like it's ever going to get broken," said No. 8 seed James Blake, who could face Nadal in the quarterfinals. "To win 53 matches in a row, you can't be a little bit better than the rest of the field. You have to be so far above and beyond."

Vilas, for his part, wasn't all that disappointed to see his record eclipsed. After all, until Nadal began getting close, the Argentine had no idea he even owned the mark.

"They never gave me any trophy or anything at the time," Vilas said, smiling.

Nadal improved to 8-0 at Roland Garros - he won the title in his debut - and he hasn't lost on clay since April 8, 2005, against Igor Andreev in Valencia, Spain. There were moments of shakiness against Soderling, particularly when Nadal was broken while serving for the second set at 5-4.

Blake, who beat Nadal on a hard court in Indian Wells, Calif., in March, eliminated Paradorn Srichaphan, 6-0, 6-4, 7-6 (3), and now faces Nicolas Almagro, 19-6 on clay this year. Blake is 3-4 on the surface in 2006 and never has been past the second round at the French Open.

Because clay is considered something of an equalizer, dulling hard strokes and creating longer rallies than on grass or hard courts, Roland Garros often turns out surprising results.

There was little stunning about yesterday's happenings, though, with seeded players going 25-3, including wins for Nadal's two immediate predecessors as French Open champion: 2003's Juan Carlos Ferrero and 2004's Gaston Gaudio. No. 16 Jarkko Nieminen quit because of stomach cramps, and the highest-ranked woman to exit was No. 18 Elena Likhovtseva, a 2005 semifinalist. She lost, 6-1, 6-1, to Karolina Sprem, who upset Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2004 with the help of an extra point mistakenly awarded by the chair umpire.

There were no such glitches for the 11th-seeded Williams in a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sybille Bammer of Austria.

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