Young Nadal serves notice

With improved 2nd serve, Spaniard shows Agassi his success no longer is confined to clay


July 03, 2006|By CHARLES BRICKER

WIMBLEDON, England -- That was one of the indelible moments in tennis history Saturday, as Andre Agassi played his final match at Wimbledon.

But anyone spending too much time waxing nostalgic over his farewell to London missed another story, and one that has more important implications for the second week of this tournament.

Rafael Nadal has found a serve.

"Yes!" his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, agreed yesterday after he put the No. 2 player in the world through a one-hour practice session. A day earlier the French Open champion had stroked 18 aces against Agassi without once facing a break point.

"When Rafa came on the ATP Tour at such a young age, he didn't work so much on his serve," Toni Nadal said through an interpreter. "He would just get the first serve in deep and not so fast because he knew he could win from the baseline."

But beginning in Marseilles at the start of this season, Nadal began concentrating heavily on his second serve and that has become so much quicker and reliable that he is now able to take more risks with his first, and that certainly made an impact on Agassi.

"His serve, first of all, it really is an awkward movement through the air, so you never get a real clean swing at it unless you're able to give it time to settle down," Agassi said.

"And if you do that, you have to back up and you're really giving him position on the court. But more than that, if you don't hit a good return, like a really good return, he's going to take hold of that first shot."

Agassi went on to describe the first serve as having "an awkward spin to it." Plus, he said, "He backs it up very well."

It's a sneaky-fast serve. The racket motion up and forward begins almost concurrently with his toss, allowing him to put the ball up short and speed his momentum into the strike. Yet against Agassi, it wasn't so much the pace of his first serve (average 117 mph) as his location. The 20-year-old Spaniard hit his spots so well.

The book on Nadal for most of the past two years emphasized his heavy upside. Not only did he have a fabulous game, but it could get so much better if he added a first serve capable of creating some "free points."

Eighteen aces against one of the great service returners in the game was impressive enough, but 45 percent of Nadal's serves were unreturned and, in the crucial second set, that figure reached 56 percent.

There are no guarantees that Nadal's serve won't suddenly retreat into inconsistency in his fourth-round match today against Irakli Labadze. That can happen with a serve that still is developing.

But if he can maintain what he did against Agassi, he becomes, perhaps astonishingly to many, a contender for this year's Wimbledon title.

Is it too early to think what a lot of people might have thought was unthinkable before this tournament, that Nadal could challenge Roger Federer on a grass court? Agassi was asked.

"How do you say he couldn't," Agassi replied. "Or anybody for that matter?" And then Agassi launched into a short dissertation on the heart and soul that Nadal throws into every point.

"If tennis was as easy as phoning in the results, I would have called in a win against Nadal," he said. "It just doesn't happen that way. You have to come out and do it. That's one thing I keep speaking to in competition."

And then he seemed to focus in on a possible Nadal-Federer final. "The competitor's heart and mind leave a lot of room for a lot of things that we might think is crazy," he said.

If men's tennis is in for another Federer-Nadal final, the stretch run begins today with the three-time defending champion playing No. 13 Tomas Berdych, third match on Centre Court, while Nadal is third on Court 1.

Charles Bricker writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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