Rafael Nadal got a running start in his quest to regain the championship at Wimbledon, his immediate goal before he bids for a breakthrough U.S. Open title and a place in one of the most elite groups in tennis.
Hours after winning his fifth French Open and returning to the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis, Nadal jogged through the Gare du Nord in Paris to catch a train to London, where he’s seeded to meet six-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer in the July 4 final on the grass courts of the All England Club.
A second championship at Wimbledon, which begins today, is the 24-year-old Spaniard’s first goal, followed by a first title at the U.S. Open in September. Victory in New York would complete his career Grand Slam, something only six men have managed.
“That would make him one of the all-time greats,” Michael Stich, the 1991 Wimbledon champion and now an analyst for the British Broadcasting Corp., said in an interview. “The only thing he has to do is win the U.S. Open and that puts him in a very rare group of players that have won all four Grand Slams.”
Federer, the defending champion, is seeded No. 1 and is the 11-8 favorite at British bookmaker William Hill Plc to win Wimbledon. Nadal, the No. 2 seed who missed last year’s tournament because of knee injuries, is the second choice at 5- 2. Britain’s Andy Murray is third at 6-1 and last year’s runner- up, Andy Roddick of the U.S., is fourth at 14-1.
Player to Beat
Forget the odds and the seedings, said Brad Gilbert, a former coach of Agassi, the 1992 Wimbledon champion. Nadal is the player to beat.
“Nadal first, Federer second,” Gilbert, an analyst for ESPN, said on a conference call last week.
Federer will open the tournament today on Centre Court against Alejandro Falla of Colombia. Roddick plays Rajeev Ram of the U.S., while five-time women’s champion Venus Williams, the 7-2 second favorite behind her sister Serena, a 2-1 chance, faces Rossanna De Los Rios of Paraguay. Nadal will play his first round tomorrow against wild-card Kei Nishikori of Japan.
A year ago, there were concerns about Nadal’s health as well as his tennis.
He lost to Robin Soderling in the fourth round at the French Open, his only defeat on the clay of Paris, and then skipped Wimbledon because of tendinitis in his knees. Federer, beaten by the Spaniard in an epic five-setter in the 2008 Wimbledon final, won his first French Open to complete the career Grand Slam and outlasted Roddick in London in another five-set match to break Pete Sampras’s record with his 15th major title.
Nadal cut back his pre-French Open schedule this year to reduce wear on his legs. He zipped through the tournament at Roland Garros without dropping a set and beat Soderling in the final for his seventh Grand Slam victory.
“Last year, all of us following the game were worried Nadal was in real trouble physically,” said Mary Carillo, a former French Open mixed doubles champion and now a television analyst. “The fact that he’s been able to play every other tournament now, and take better care with the schedule and is healthy again has changed everything.”
Because he missed so much time a year ago, Nadal, the 2009 Australian Open champion, will solidify his No. 1 spot in the ATP World Tour standings at Wimbledon because he has no ranking points to defend. Federer, who trails Nadal by 220 points, must win the Wimbledon title to retain all 2,000 points from the tournament as he tries to be No. 1 by season’s end.
No. 1 Priority
“My aim is to be at the top come the end of the year,” Federer said before the start of a grass-court event in Halle, Germany, two weeks ago. “Being No. 1 one remains my priority.”
Not so for Nadal.
“Winning any other tournament would be better for me than being No. 1 in the world,” he said after beating Soderling on June 6. “Winning at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open would be incredible for me.”
Federer hasn’t won a tournament since the Australian Open in January and lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the final at Halle, his first loss there since 2002. Gilbert said the 28-year-old Swiss right-hander remains a force.
“His record is superlative on grass, I wouldn’t worry about him,” Gilbert said.
Nadal’s latest victory in Paris left him one shy of Bjorn Borg’s six French Open titles. The Spaniard didn’t dwell on next year, quickly turning his focus to London.
After running to catch his train in Paris, Nadal arrived at St. Pancras station and took a taxi to the Queen’s Club, the west London site of the main men’s tune-up tournament for Wimbledon.
Once there, he pleaded with head groundsman Graham Kimpton to put the nets back up in spite of rain. Kimpton relented, and Nadal practiced for 20 minutes as dark clouds gathered.
Nadal told a news conference later that he had come to London with “a very good motivation” to win Wimbledon.
“All my life I have watched the tournament on the TV,” he said. “So for me just to be there was a dream.”