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Monday, May 11, 2009
Updated: May 23, 3:35 PM ET
Will Nadal win the season Slam?

By Bonnie D. Ford and Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Forty years after Rod Laver's calendar Grand Slam, will Rafael Nadal become the second man in the Open era to accomplish the feat? ESPN.com tennis columnists Bonnie D. Ford and Greg Garber discuss among themselves.

Bonnie D. Ford: Greg, hard to argue that the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer rivalry reached a tipping point at the Australian Open with Nadal's first major title on hard courts. Now our short attention span has turned to a related question: Can Nadal pull off what Federer hasn't yet, and so many other illustrious players never managed, i.e., win a calendar Slam? His chances of completing the semi-Slam in Paris look pretty good right now.

Greg Garber: Bonnie, I think we'd both take Nadal against the field at Roland Garros. The 22-year-old Spaniard -- yes, he's still only as old as a typical college senior -- was fairly flawless in winning his fifth consecutive title at Monte Carlo and his fifth straight at Barcelona … setting up a run for Rafa's -- you guessed it -- fifth consecutive title at Roland Garros. When he first won there in 2005 a week after he turned 18, the conventional wisdom was that Nadal would be in contention in Paris for the next decade. But did anyone seriously think he'd go 10-for-10? Bonnie, breaking down the French Open first, is there anyone in your mind that is capable of upsetting Nadal?

Ford: Nadal is not only 28-0 at Roland Garros; he's dropped a total of seven sets in those matches, the last one being against Federer in the '07 final. My British colleague, Simon Cambers, cracked me up in Indian Wells by imitating another writer who kept muttering under his breath, "Jeu, Nadal ["Game, Nadal"]. Jeu, Nadal. Jeu, Nadal" last year in a sort of hypnotic trance. I'll say this: I think if Nadal were to be upset at the French Open, it would be in the early rounds, by someone we haven't thought of, playing the match of his career on an off day (like up all night with stomach flu) for Nadal. He has had a couple of spotty first-round matches but seems to get stronger as he goes along in that tournament. Two weeks later at Wimbledon, it starts to get a lot trickier.

Garber: Indeed it does. So, going out on a limb, we will assign Rafa the first two Slams of the season heading into Wimbledon. Can he win there? Of course. His first two tries there, in 2003 and 2005, yielded only three match wins, but he made the finals in 2006 and 2007 and finally broke through with an epic -- and, in retrospect -- chemistry-changing championship victory over Federer. As Nadal's Uncle Toni told me last year at the All England Club, his nephew learned to master the nuances of grass. He stepped closer to the baseline, forced himself to be more aggressive when the opportunity presented itself and punched up his serve enough to get the occasional free point. With the courts playing more like clay and less like the top of a coffee table, Wimbledon plays nicely into Nadal's all-court game. Still, this fortnight is not a layup for him by any means.

Ford: Quick: Who was the last player not named Federer to beat Nadal at Wimbledon? That would be Luxembourg's Gilles Muller in the second round in 2005. Everyone started talking about Nadal's ability to transition to the surface last season, but in reality, he's been grazing on the grass for several years. On paper, there are more players with a chance to beat him there -- Novak Djokovic (whom I probably should have given a few more props on clay), Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, even -- on a great day -- a big server like Feliciano Lopez. But I still think Nadal's potentially most dangerous opponents are his own knees. He clearly has not ratcheted down his clay-court schedule to save himself for Wimbledon, so he'll arrive, as usual, with shock absorbers that have taken a heckuva pounding. The world will want to see a sequel to The Greatest Match Ever Played … think it's going to happen?

Garber: I, for one, do not. While Federer did a nice job getting to the final last year after a dicey start to the 2008 season, who did he beat? Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, Mario Ancic in the quarters and Marat Safin in the semifinals. Federer didn't lose a set in those three matches, but this year, rest assured, there will be younger, hungrier opponents waiting for him. Though last year's post-mononucleosis/back struggle was a physical one, you get the sense that Federer is battling himself these days. This hasn't gone unnoticed in the tennis community. It's one thing to lose to Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, but falling in straight sets to Davis Cup doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka in Monte Carlo does not bode well. I would like to see him get to that Wimbledon final as much as anyone, but I'm not feeling it. I'm not sure Roger is feeling it.

Rafael Nadal
No one has won the calendar Grand Slam of the men's tour since Rod Laver in 1969.

Ford: Plus, we don't know exactly when the newlywed Federers are expecting their firstborn -- an event that rocks anyone's life. I guess we're in agreement that Nadal goes to England as the favorite for the first time. This year, with the new roof sheltering Centre Court, he can find comfort in the thought that never again will he have to play a match stretched over five days as he infamously did against Robin Soderling in 2007. Should Nadal repeat at Wimbledon, that brings us to the fourth and indisputably hardest hurdle for him: the U.S. Open, where he's never reached the final. Organizers made a mess of the staggered semifinals last year and Nadal had to finish his waterlogged match against Murray the next day. You might recall that moment after a long rally when Nadal -- for the first time in anyone's memory -- actually gave the athlete's universal body language signal for fatigue, bending over at the baseline, head down, gripping his thighs. Any way he'll have the legs he needs to win that tournament?

Garber: Bonnie, let's say for the sake of discussion -- and the continuing plausibility of our debate -- Nadal repeats his title at Wimbledon. Recent history in the majors backs this scenario. Since 2004, Nadal and Federer have won an amazing 18 of the 21 majors contested. Gaston Gaudio, Marat Safin and Novak Djokovic are the only men to crack that inner circle. Nadal has won three of the past four and is the odds-on favorite to win four of five. Giving him five of six would not appear to be a great stretch. Let's suspend our disbelief and give him back-to-back Wimbledons. That would bring us to the summer hard-court season in the United States, which culminates with the U.S. Open, the only major Rafa has yet to win.

Ford: I dare you to call it.

Garber: Done. There are two conflicting trajectories here. One: In six tries, Nadal has never won the U.S. Open. Two: The same was true at Wimbledon and in Australia, but he eventually mastered those events. Although Nadal was a quarterfinalist in New York in 2006 and a semifinalist a year ago, the way he plays the game and schedules his tournaments makes it extremely difficult for him to finish the major season strong. Do you remember how weary he looked in losing to Murray? Until he curtails his schedule, particularly on clay, he won't have the legs -- his greatest physical strength -- to complete the calendar Slam.

Ford: If Nadal takes the first three Slams, he'll bring a totally different attitude into the U.S. Open: the drive of a great athlete on the brink of something spectacular. Up to now, he has shown great ability to rise to the occasion, and his late July/August schedule will be less frenetic with no Olympics this year. (Though we shouldn't forget that Spain is hosting Germany in the Davis Cup quarterfinals the weekend after Wimbledon.) But there's a reason horses that win the Derby and Preakness so often fall short in the Belmont. The surface in Flushing Meadows is the least hospitable to his style. The pressure will be suffocating. Nadal's chief rivals will be intent on avoiding a shutout in the majors. If everything goes perfectly, Nadal has a better chance to sweep than did Federer because of his prowess in Paris. But everything usually doesn't. I suspect Nadal will hit the wall in New York.

Garber: I'm with you on that one, Bonnie. But that's more than three months off. Let's enjoy the Euro Slams and see if Nadal puts himself in a position to finish a historic season. See you in Paris at Le Grand Colbert.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com. Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.