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Monday, September 22, 2008
Nadal's efficient, brilliant shotmaking propels Spain into final

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal broke Andy Roddick five times to clinch the match and Davis Cup tie for Spain.
MADRID -- Rafael Nadal's Spanish Davis Cup teammates tried to hoist him onto their shoulders after he secured their trip to the finals, but they teetered under his larger-than-life weight.

"He's heavier than I thought," Feliciano Lopez said after the human cargo nearly bent him double.

Nadal still is able to ignite his considerable mass with terrific energy even in the final quarter of an extremely physical but rewarding fiscal year. He was merely professionally excellent when he beat Sam Querrey in the first match of the weekend. On Sunday, playing Andy Roddick on clay favorably softened by rain, Nadal's game took on the familiar Tennisaurus Rex proportions it has had for much of his skyline-trampling season.

Roddick, squashed in straight sets that included his first bagel in Davis Cup play, could only join Nadal's legions of admirers in the end.

"It is frustrating, but in fairness, I think I played one really bad game," Roddick said of Nadal's extraordinary shotmaking in the 6-0 second set. "The other times, he was sliding to his left, playing kick serves from up here [indicating the height of his ear] and hitting a flat angle. I'm not sure what else could be done. … My opinion is that he's the best clay-courter of all time, and I'm not that great a clay-courter."

But there is one downside in Spain's pursuit of the silver trophy, which the world No. 1 also helped win as a teenager in 2004. Nadal's personal odometer just clicked over to 88 matches this season, and he now has virtually guaranteed that he'll play into the last week of November, taped knees and all.

Could two Grand Slam wins and a pair of semis, an Olympic gold medal and six other titles constitute too much of a good thing already? Reporters asked Nadal whether he considered the ATP year-end championships in Shanghai a must-go now that they'll be shoehorned in before the Davis Cup finals in Argentina. He shrugged.

"One more week, one less week isn't going to make a difference," Nadal said, sounding like any workaholic, although he is taking a short vacation in Ibiza and doesn't plan to play again until the Masters Series event back here in Madrid in three weeks.

"Rafa's gonna have a very long season," said Roddick, who knows from last year's experience that reaching the Davis Cup championships comes at the expense of part of the short offseason. "You really don't have a lot of time to shut it down before you start training again. … But if anybody can handle it, it's probably him."

In fact, Nadal briefly contemplated sitting out Sunday's match. He felt pain in his gluteal (buttocks) muscle during Saturday's practice and, fearing he'd strained it, went to a local hospital for tests. Spanish captain Emilio Sanchez warned No. 15 Fernando Verdasco he might be needed for the reverse singles.

But Nadal had no discomfort when he arose Sunday morning. Rain delayed the start of the match by 90 minutes, making the surface slower, neutralizing the slight turbocharge Madrid's 2,188-foot altitude might have conferred on Roddick's serve and further complicating an already difficult challenge for the American.

With the encouragement of his interim coach, U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe, Roddick cast his lot with a serve-and-volley game rather than trying to duke it out with Nadal in side-to-side rallies.

"That was the best chance that I had to make Rafa uncomfortable, to put him under pressure," Roddick said. "On this surface, my best approach shot is probably my serve."

Andy Roddick
In front of a boisterous Spanish crowd, on red clay, Andy Roddick couldn't keep pace with Rafael Nadal.
But Nadal bared his teeth and alternately shredded and spat back most of what Roddick had to offer, hitting freakishly good return winners and passing with machine-like efficiency. After the fact, Nadal generously agreed that coming to net was the right strategy against him, modestly hesitating when he got to his rationale. Verdasco smiled, took the microphone and spoke for him, saying "On the baseline, he's very tough to beat."

Of course, Nadal has proved he's tough from anywhere on the court. His French Open and Wimbledon titles and recent ascension to No. 1 are huge pieces of Spain's sensational sporting performance this year, along with the European soccer championship and a sweep of cycling's most important events. Veteran Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France, and Sunday, just a short distance from the historic bullring where the Davis Cup matches were played, 25-year-old Alberto Contador sealed his Tour of Spain victory in the final stage to complement a Tour of Italy title earned this past spring. Spain's basketball team finished second to the United States at the Beijing Olympics.

Roddick said he and his teammates are committed to regaining the championship, and they have reason to be optimistic, pending Monday's all-determining 2009 Davis Cup draw. Querrey distinguished himself in his rookie outing, and Bob Bryan's absence didn't torpedo the doubles point as Mardy Fish stepped in and did a more than able job with Mike Bryan to down Verdasco and Lopez in five sets. But at this moment in time, perhaps no one is capable of putting Spain and its heavyweight champion on the ropes -- if he can keep from beating himself up too badly.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.