Friday, June 02, 2006


Rafael Nadal of Spain made a little history earlier this week, when he broke Guillermo Vilas's 1977 record for the longest modern clay-court winning streak in men's tennis. But Mr. Nadal will be looking to stake a larger claim next weekend, as he tries to win a second straight French Open men's singles title at Roland Garros.

Mr. Nadal won his first Grand Slam singles there last year, just days after his 19th birthday. While teenage prodigies are legion in the women's game, the number of men who have that kind of early success is much smaller. To determine if such early success predicts later greatness, we examined the careers of the six other players who have won one or more Grand Slam titles as teenagers since the Open era began (when previously amateur tournaments were opened to professional players) in 1968.

The good news for Mr. Nadal is that there are few flashes in the pan in the annals of men's tennis. Of those six teen Grand Slam winners, five took at least five more Slams.

Poised for Greatness

At the very top of the list are the two winningest players of the Open era: Pete Sampras, who won the 1990 U.S. Open at the age of 19, and Bjorn Borg, who captured the 1974 French Open at 18. By the end of his career, Mr. Sampras had won a record 14 majors, while Mr. Borg had won 11 before retiring abruptly in his mid-20s.

The other positive indicator: Young champs usually develop solid all-around games. Take Mats Wilander, who won the French Open at the age of 17. He began his career as a steady clay-courter, beating Mr. Vilas en route to his first Slam title at the 1982 French Open. But as he grew older, Mr. Wilander learned to end points by attacking selectively. He won the Australian Open when it was played on grass (beating Wimbledon champ John McEnroe in the process) and both the U.S. and Australian Opens on hard courts.

What's the low end of expectations for Mr. Nadal? That would be Michael Chang, who won the French Open when he was 17, becoming the youngest men's Slam champion in the Open era. While he would go on to a long, productive career, making three Grand Slam finals, Mr. Chang would never win another major. But his game was based largely on footspeed, and he was surpassed by harder-hitting contemporaries such as Mr. Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. By contrast, Mr. Nadal is plenty fast, but the power of his strokes is a bit reminiscent of Mr. Vilas. His tremendous topspin, which brings the ball down into the court, allows Mr. Nadal to hit hard but very high over the net, giving him a huge margin for error. At the same time, that extreme spin allows Mr. Nadal to create almost unheard-of angles.

Federer's Big Chance

This is all reason to be bullish on Mr. Nadal's future, but don't be surprised if he has a rough patch before he goes on to greatness. While Mr. Borg was able to repeat at the French, and Boris Becker won two Wimbledons in a row (the first in 1985, at the age of 17), young players often need a chance to hone their games. Mr. Sampras had a drought of almost three years between his first Slam win at the 1990 U.S. Open and his second at Wimbledon in 1993. And Mr. Nadal's serve and his backhand are a work in progress.

Despite his formidable physique, Mr. Nadal has proved somewhat fragile, suffering from a variety of foot and leg injuries in recent months. If Mr. Nadal falters before the final weekend, it could provide Roger Federer, who has a 1-5 record against Mr. Nadal, with his best-ever opportunity to win the one Grand Slam that has eluded him. But all indications point to Mr. Nadal being at the beginning of a history-making career.


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