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Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Rafa's rolling toward history

I don't care what the rankings say. The best player on the men's tour right now is Rafael Nadal. Just a few weeks ago, Rafa crushed the field at Roland Garros and made Roger Federer look like a rec player. He followed up that virtuoso performance by winning the grass-court warm-up at London's Queen's Club, beating Novak Djokovic. And now? Two matches stand between Nadal and a historic accomplishment that not even Federer can lay claim to. I'm talking about The Double: winning the French Open on clay and Wimbledon on grass back-to-back in the same year.

The Double is the hardest surface transition to make in pro tennis, and there's little time to do it -- just two weeks from the final day of Roland Garros to the start of Wimbledon. The last player on the men's side to do The Double was Bjorn Borg. The stoic Swede actually won the French and Wimbledon back-to-back three years in a row, from '78 to '80. Now Bjorn Borg Version 2.0 -- faster, stronger, but with the same preternatural focus and zeal for winning every single point -- is poised to join Borg in the record books.

First, Nadal has to get through Rainer Schuettler or Arnaud Clement, then meet the winner of the other semifinal between Marat Safin and Federer. Upsets happen, but at the risk of this column sounding ridiculous in a few days, let me say it: Nadal will win.

No one is playing better right now, not even close. The amount of concentration and intensity he has demonstrated for the past two months has been absurd. If you play tennis, you understand how hard it is to maintain your focus for one match, let alone an entire tournament. Heck, some of us can't even do it for a few games.

For the past few years, Nadal has been an unstoppable force on clay. Well, guess what? He's looking like the same juggernaut on the grass, too, now that he's done some key fine-tuning to his game. Since stepping on the grass, Nadal has been using his lefty hook serve more effectively to open up the court, flattening out his backhand to ruthlessly rip winners across the court and down the line, and overall dominating with his forehand.

Think Federer can stop him? First, he'll have to get past Safin, which could be much trickier than you think. And then Federer will face immense pressure, the kind that can cause even the best players to tighten up. After all, Federer has come up short in the first two Slams, and as the five-time defending Wimbledon champion he's expected to win at the All England Club. Let's also not forget that Federer is a different player when Rafa is on the other side of the net; he's less sure of himself in terms of his strategy and shot selection. Remember: He barely squeaked out a win over Rafa last year.

Which brings me back to my main point: If (and I think it's more like when) Nadal wins The Double, he will be the ATP player of the year. He could go back to Mallorca and fish for the rest of the season, never once picking up a racket, and it won't change a thing. Nadal will be King for the season, head and shoulders above Federer and Djokovic and everyone else. With all the talk about records falling, Nadal will have accomplished one of the most difficult feats in our sport.

Of course, he won't rest on his laurels. Rafa will be out on the court soon after Wimbledon, at some tournament, chasing down every single ball.