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Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Will Almagro be the next to break through?

By Ed McGrogan

Stanislas Wawrinka has owned one of the most lethal one-handed backhands for years. But it was only this season, in his late 20s and after so many painful defeats, that he punctuated his slow and steady climb up the rankings with a signature breakthrough win.

You could say the same thing about Nicolas Almagro, who ended a 10-match losing streak to Rafael Nadal, the rey de rojo, with a cathartic triumph in Barcelona. The result was a reminder of both Nadal’s greatness -- to dismiss a player as talented as Almagro 10 straight times is outstanding -- and his countryman’s considerable abilities.

So I ask you this question: Why can’t Almagro do what Wawrinka did in Australia and win a major title? Maybe even at the next Grand Slam, the French Open?

The logic may seem a reach and the premise far-fetched, but Almagro is a long-forgotten land mine, waiting to detonate without warning. Nadal found that out over the course of three sets, but as so often happens to giant-killers, Almagro couldn’t build upon his significant upset. He went on lose his next match, which speaks to a problem he has: living up to expectations.

Yet despite a maddening 13-7 record in 2014 (heading into this week), Almagro is not inconsistent -- he owns 12 titles and nine runner-up finishes, all on clay, and for the most part beats the players he’s supposed to. It may not come as a surprise, then, that the Spaniard was inside the top 20 from July 2010 through March 2014. That slip-up is partially attributed to Almagro missing the Australian Open with injury; he waited until clay play to return.

Still, never in that extended stretch of consistency did Almagro have a win as resonant as the one over Nadal; it was a watershed moment, obvious from his celebration. Was it a fluke or a sign of things to come? I think the latter, based on his overall body of work and mentality. In the past, Almagro appeared to be a player who compromised his tennis with his fitness, but that has changed as he’s matured -- much like Wawrinka.

The next two weeks in Madrid and Rome -- particularly the former, as Almagro clearly relishes playing in front of his native fans -- should be telling. It’s not as if he has to win either event to be considered a threat at Roland Garros; remember, Wawrinka didn’t win his first Masters title until after he won his first Grand Slam title. But I think we should expect more from Almagro at these two prestigious tournaments, and it’s up to him to prove that he’s of the caliber of the upper-most echelon on his preferred surface.

There’s one other important element of Almagro’s game that sets him apart from other clay-courters: his serve. Coming into Madrid, Almagro is the leader in clay-court aces by a whopping 45; he’s struck 127 in just 18 matches. He’s won 76 percent of his first-serve points on dirt, and has won 81 percent of his service games. (The leader in that last category? Wawrinka, with an incredible 95 percent game-conversion rate on clay.) We’ve seen how much force Almagro imparts onto the ball when he has time to set up his forehands and backhands on slow clay; it’s no wonder he does so much damage with his serve -- sometimes in the 140 mph range -- given that he has total control over it.

When Wawrinka won Down Under, our entire notion of the tennis hierarchy needed a do-over. It wasn’t a Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that finally snagged a major title way from the Big Four, it was Wawrinka. Maybe Berdych, Ferrer and Tsonga -- all Grand Slam finalists in the past -- have seen their best chances come and go.

Almagro, on the other hand, is an unknown in that we still don’t know what his ceiling is. It will be intriguing to find out, given his heavy dose of new confidence. Attitude alone will not be enough to send him through to the weekend in Madrid or Rome, or even the second week of Roland Garros. But I sense a disturbance in the force -- and a great opportunity for Almagro.

If there’s any year that you could see someone cracking the Nadal code at the French Open -- get well soon, Robin Soderling -- this seems to be it. As the French say, Nicolas, bonne chance.