Nadal bows out early at Wimbledon

Posted: Friday, June 24, 2005

WIMBLEDON, England — By the end, the joy was gone from Rafael Nadal's game. All those uppercuts, hops and yells of ''Vamos!'' he normally displays were replaced by the serious look of someone taking mental notes.

The spunk and strokes that carried Nadal to a French Open championship on clay just don't have the same effect on grass right now, and while the 19-year-old Spaniard is convinced he can learn enough to win a title at the All England Club, that day must wait.

The No. 4-seeded Nadal lost 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 Thursday in the second round of Wimbledon to 69th-ranked Gilles Muller, the only man from Luxembourg to win a Grand Slam match in the Open era.

Nadal was beaten but unbowed, saying he'd like to build a grass court on his home island of Mallorca so he can practice on the slick surface. Of the four majors, Nadal grew up most wanting to win Wimbledon, because only one Spanish man has, Manuel Santana in 1966.

''When I improve a lot, I can win a lot of matches here, no? Because I am fast,'' said Nadal, whose English is getting better by the day. ''I need to improve my volley, I need to improve my serve, I need to improve my confidence with the game on grass, no?''

He's become tennis' ''It Boy,'' thanks to his skills, his success, his exuberance, his clamdiggers-and-muscle-shirt outfits. Nadal shot from 51st in the rankings at the end of 2004 to the top five, but no matter how much attention he receives, the intensity might never rival what Tim Henman experiences annually at Wimbledon.

The locals haven't had a British men's champion to celebrate since 1936, and Henman's serve-and-volley game carried him to the semifinals four times. Henmania ended early this year, though, with the sixth-seeded Englishman's 3-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6 loss to Dmitry Tursunov. It's the first time since 1995 that Henman, 30, didn't at least reach the fourth round.

''You sit here now and sort of feel somewhat numb,'' Henman said. ''But what can I do about that? Can I try harder? It's not about that.''

So he passes the burden on to the last British man or woman in the tournament: Andrew Murray, an 18-year-old wild card ranked 312th, who surprised No. 14 Radek Stepanek 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Not long after, a BBC announcer suggested that the grassy slope where fans picnic and watch matches on a giant screen be renamed, changing ''Henman Hill'' to ''Murray Field.''

''He doesn't get enough credit,'' said Murray, who watched Henman play before taking the court. ''He had so much pressure on him every year, and he's done so well.''

The Scotsman's third-round opponent is 2002 Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian, and Murray immediately set about lowering expectations, pronouncing simply: ''I'll lose my next match.''

Looking forward in the women's tournament, it's tough not to focus on the potential fourth-round matchup between the Williams siblings. It looked for a time as if Serena Williams might not make it to the end of this week, but she recovered to beat qualifier Mara Santangelo of Italy 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Williams, whose older sister Venus beat Nicole Pratt 7-5, 6-3, said she's playing on a slightly broken left ankle, and though it appeared to hamper her early on, she was racing to turn Santangelo's drop shots into winners by late in the second set.

''I keep promising, 'The next match, I'm going to do A, B, C and D.' And I didn't do it today,'' said Serena, the 2002-03 champion. ''But I'm here to stay. I think I have the best chances of people left in the draw. I'm probably the most mentally tough person out here.''

The woman she lost to in last year's Wimbledon final, Maria Sharapova, was a 6-0, 6-1 winner over Sesil Karatantcheva, the 15-year-old Bulgarian who surprised Venus Williams en route to the French Open quarters.

Karatantcheva pledged to rout Sharapova before they played at Indian Wells, Calif., last year. Karatantcheva is now 0-3 against the Russian — but has no regrets about talking trash.

''I'm just going say what I feel like I want to say,'' said Karatantcheva, who learned English by listening to Spice Girls songs. ''For sure, it's going to get me in trouble most of the time, but you really can't be that perfect doll that always says what people want you to say.''

Sharapova dismissed the topic, saying, ''The tennis does the talking.''

She won the first nine games Thursday, and won 27 of the last 31 points.

''I knew she got to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam,'' Sharapova said. ''Obviously, grass is totally different.''

No one needs to remind Nadal, whose match against Muller was only his sixth on the surface. Unlike the carefree tennis he played in Paris, Nadal appeared tight at key moments. He double-faulted to hand over a 5-3 edge in the third set, and failed to convert two break points early in the fourth.

Nadal followed his serve up to the net just twice all match. That's OK on clay, but it's not on grass. Even rarer is the man capable of conquering both: Bjorn Borg in 1980 was the last to win the French Open and Wimbledon consecutively.

''Maybe,'' Muller said, ''Nadal is never going to win Wimbledon.''

Nadal was asked if eventually he'll be comfortable on grass.

''I hope,'' he said. ''I try.''

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