I would love to see Nadal carry his clay success over to the summer hardcourts this year. He's perfectly capable of playing very well there and winning (like the Montreal final last year). http://cbs.sportsline.com/tennis/story/9456564/rss The talk of tennis? This time of year, it's all Nadal May 23, 2006 By Joel Drucker Special to CBS SportsLine.com Eight questions about Rafael Nadal: 1. What makes this guy so good? Raw physical hunger. From the minute Nadal walks on the court, he has one goal: Brutalize that guy across the net. He uses his ravenous desire and energy to smother opponents, bouncing like a boxer during the coin flip, setting up shop at the baseline and letting his speed, withering forehand and tenacity will himself into every single point. More than a ball-striker, Nadal is a compelling whirlwind. On clay in particular, an opponent can easily feel as if he has no way to gain control of the match. Moreover, nothing appears to faze Nadal. His approach to adversity is exemplary: Dig a ditch. Hunker down. Run faster. Hit harder. Go for more depth and angles. And this isn't just some jock out there dashing with his racket, but also a well-trained craftsman. Pay close attention to the way Nadal is constantly taking the little adjustment steps that help get him in position to make the best possible swing. 2. Why does he make life so hard for Roger Federer? Tempting as it is to trot out metaphorical notions of the cool Swiss versus the hot Spaniard, the precise artist versus the impassioned warrior, there's also a simple technical and tactical matter at play in this rivalry. The point of entry to beating Federer is to attack his backhand. As a left-hander, Nadal is able to whip his cross-court forehand diagonally high and away from Federer's one-hander. A right-hander can't quite do that. As Andre Agassi told me earlier this year, "That lefty ball goes across the court, in a way a righty's can't because we're driving it straight. When I hit the ball that way to Roger, he then slices it back to my backhand, and I can't hurt him nearly the way Nadal can with that forehand." For Nadal versus Federer, particularly on slow, high-bouncing clay, simplicity is bliss. Again and again he pummels Federer's backhand. And then, when Federer has the chance to strike his superb forehand, he's so relieved that he might well go for more than necessary. Still, the margin is narrow. In their final in Rome, Nadal served at 5-6, 15-40 in the fifth set -- and Federer misfired on two forehands. The bad news for Federer is that next month's French Open is played on a slower clay than Rome. 3. Why is Nadal different than other Spanish players? Hard-working as such recent Spanish French Open champions as Carlos Moya, Albert Costa and Juan Carlos Ferrero are, it always seemed to me that once they reached their personal pinnacle of winning Roland Garros, the air hissed out of the balloon. (A weary Costa retired this spring.) Nadal brings a whole different level of intensity, commitment and, best of all, desire to his tennis. He'll turn 20 on June 3, and it's clear he relishes the fight. I also think the fact he comes from such a sports-loving, team-oriented family (he's coach by his uncle Toni, and his other uncle, Miguel, was a pro soccer player) means he's treated less as a precious, coddled tennis prodigy and more like a hardcore warrior. 4. How do you beat him on clay? Nadal's backhand is weaker; in fact, the technique to me appears implausible, but somehow he pulls it off, again because he is such a willful, hard-working competitor. But getting to his backhand is not easy. Step 1 requires making him move far, far to his left on the forehand -- to the point where he has at least his left leg near or in the alley. It's difficult for a right-hander to do this with a forehand, and also not particularly easy for a right-handed backhand to roll the ball that deep, high and hard. The man with the technical tools to possibly pull this off is Marat Safin, the exquisite talent with nary a drop of mental fortitude. A left-hander with a forehand that can run Nadal wide can challenge him, as Mariano Puerta did in last year's French Open final. Though on other surfaces Nadal is considerably easier to attack, at this year's French Open I'd gladly take him and give anyone else the field. 5. His game is so physical. How long can he last? Nadal already has struggled with ankle and foot injuries. Last December he took a long trip from Spain to Nike headquarters in Oregon just so he could spend a few hours finding the right shoe fit. The physical brand of tennis Nadal plays leaves me wondering if he's going to streak rapidly across the sky. My hope is that he'll continue to put in time refining his game, improving his serve and backhand, learning to become more comfortable at the net and, in the process, giving him enough mental diversity to keep his body refreshed. 6. Are there other players in tennis history he resembles? Two lefties who loved throwing jabs: Guillermo Vilas in the '70s came along with Bjorn Borg and ushered in the game's emphasis on topspin and grind-'em-up baseline tennis. Later came Thomas Muster, another lefty with less of Vilas' shotmaking artistry but more of a penchant for raw physical sadism. Like Nadal, each of these two rapidly earned clay-court titles. But unlike Nadal, their Slam success came much later, Vilas earning his first Slam at 25, Muster's sole Slam coming at 27. Nadal's precocious charisma also bears a resemblance to that other teen topspinner, Bjorn Borg. 7. Can Nadal win big away from clay? Yes. The Australian Open's Rebound Ace was so slow and high-bouncing in January that if Nadal hadn't been injured, he likely would have done quite well. I can definitely see him winning his share of hard-court events and, if he diversifies his game just a bit, even making a go at the U.S. Open. Though he has said he'd like to win Wimbledon, grass is a surface for first-strike opportunists rather than Nadal's forceful brand of attrition. It's hard to see Nadal having the chance to inflict punishment on grass. Then again, who'd have thought a topspinner like Borg would win five Wimbledons in a row? And with Wimbledon having slowed its grass significantly the last five years, over the course of a warm fortnight Nadal could do well. Then again, he expends so much energy through the spring clay season that he'll likely never quite have enough for Wimbledon. 8. What's he like as a person? I co-produce a Tennis Channel program called Center Court, a one-on-one interview program hosted by Chris Myers. Nadal was an engaging guest. It was impressive to see "Rafa" make the effort to speak English, even laughing at himself when he didn't quite say something right. His eyes bore in intently when he was asked questions, his smile very much that of a boy enjoying his tennis ride. But then again, it's all uptime for Nadal these days. He has yet to suffer frustrating losses, has yet to respond with anguish to the demands of fame, has yet to hear tales of angry fans. Most of all he's one high-energy fellow, his body constantly twitching and bouncing even as he walks through lounges. I'm crossing my fingers that his family-based entourage will keep him grounded rather than indulge his every fancy. Whither the women? Martina Hingis couldn't have timed her return to the WTA Tour any better. The tour's major stars have failed to post significant sustainable results. Since winning the Australian Open, Amelie Mauresmo hasn't won a tournament since February. Ditto for Justine Henin-Hardenne. Maria Sharapova hasn't played one European clay-court event. Venus Williams has floundered, Serena Williams hasn't played since January, Kim Clijsters has struggled with injuries and Lindsay Davenport has pulled out of the French Open. In the meantime, Hingis' 31 match victories rank second on the tour, and she has soared in the rankings from 999 at the beginning of the year to 14. She also earned her first title in four years in Rome last week, a run highlighted by a semifinal win over Venus.