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Friday, April 26, 2013
Tough feat ahead for Rafael Nadal

By Peter Bodo



With top-seeded David Ferrer out of the way, victim of a first-round upset at the hands of Dmitry Tursunov, there's a fair chance that the No. 2 seed will have a good shot at winning the Barcelona ATP 500 tournament. Of course, I'm talking about Rafael Nadal.

Never mind that wags suggest that as soon as Ferrer saw Nadal's name in the draw he dropped everything and lit out for the Pyrenees. After all, didn't Nadal shellac Ferrer under similar circumstances just a few weeks ago in Acapulco? Ferrer is as game as they come, but Nadal has more game than all comers. That explains why Ferrer wears the albatross of a 4-17 record against Nadal around his neck. (Only one of those wins was in the years since 2007.)

Of course, Rafa will have to win two matches on clay Friday in order to advance to the semifinals, thanks to the rain that washed out almost all the tennis in Barcelona Thursday. He won his first with a 7-6 (2), 6-2 win over Benoit Paire. The situation is a comment on the growing but risky trend to leave very little wiggle room for postponements and interruptions in this era when byes are used to prop up artificially large draws, and the top players often express an interest in getting in and out of town quickly. A late start can doom a pro to playing four or five matches in as many days.

The 64-draw tournament in Barcelona requires just one fewer round than the seven played to determine the champ at a Grand Slam, but it's played in half the time (one week instead of two). Why the glut?

Over on the WTA side in Stuttgart, Germany, the women are content to offer a one-week draw of 32 with four byes -- meaning that the top four seeds (including No. 1 Maria Sharapova and No. 2 Li Na) will have to win only four matches to take the title. OK, that's not going into anyone's books as an Ironwoman feat. But it certainly makes more sense than putting Nadal in a position to play two matches on the same day. I thought that kind of thing went out with the Under-18 Northern New Jersey Amateur Clay-court Championships (or the NNJACCC)!

Maybe Nadal is doing cartwheels at the prospect of playing two matches on the same day. After all, just last week he was grousing about not really finding his clay-court groove yet, and needing more matches. Last Sunday, after Novak Djokovic ended Nadal's 46-match, eight-tournament winning streak in Monte Carlo, Nadal said:

"I think for me it was a positive week. I didn't have the practice [at home] in Mallorca, I just practiced here before the tournament. With not much preparation, I was able to play in the finals, a few matches. This week [is] going to help me be fit for the next weeks. Hopefully I can play another great week in Barcelona next week, play some matches that will keep helping to put me in the 100 percent condition physically."

Somehow, though, I don't think playing back-to-back matches in Barcelona is exactly what Nadal had in mind. And when you consider how diligently he has avoided overtaxing the left knee that kept him at home doing therapy for most of last year, you wonder if the risk is worth it for Nadal.

Unless Nadal wants to line up and knock down two rivals without a break in between, all that warming up and cooling down will create a new and different kind of stress on his joints. Is he comfortable putting them through that?

I'm tempted to speculate that after one match Friday Nadal will politely decline to continue, and give his next opponent a free pass to the semifinals.

On the other hand, tournament organizers are probably banking on the fact that Nadal has won 35 matches in a row at this tournament, and hasn't lost in Barcelona in a full decade. The thought of surrendering two amazing records in back-to-back weeks just may be a little too much for Nadal to tolerate.