WIMBLEDON, England — Having won four of the past five Grand Slam tournaments and 10 in all, Rafael Nadal was asked on the eve of Wimbledon about quickly closing in on Roger Federer's record of 16.
Nadal cut in to clarify.
“Very close? No. I am very far,” Nadal said Sunday. “Six is a lot.”
Perhaps. Still, the 25-year-old Spaniard is looking more and more like someone who will be able to challenge, if not surpass, whatever Federer's final tally is. As long as a couple of other guys don't get in the way, that is.
For years, Federer and Nadal were the men to beat at major tournaments. These days, they're joined at what is a competitive and compelling top of the game by a pair of 24-year-olds, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
That Big Four filled out the semifinals at the French Open two weeks ago, and most everyone expects them to be the final four standing in a fortnight's time at Wimbledon, where play begins today with Nadal as the defending champion.
“That's maybe something that's a bit different than maybe in the past, where maybe one of the top four guys wouldn't feel so comfortable on grass,” said Federer, a six-time winner at Wimbledon. “But this year, it seems like all of us are, which is a good thing.”
Nadal quickly earned the sobriquet “King of Clay” for his excellence on that surface, particularly at Roland Garros, where he beat Federer on June 5 for a sixth championship there.
Now Nadal seeks a third title on the grass of the All England Club, where he hasn’t lost to anyone other than Federer since 2005.
“I love to play on grass. I love to play in this fabulous place,” the top-seeded Nadal said. “In the beginning of my career, everybody talked a lot that with my style of game, [it's] going to be always very difficult to play very well here. But I worked a lot, and I put all my best in every practice.”
As the returning men's champion, Nadal will play the first match on Centre Court on Day 1, against Michael Russell of the United States. That's an honor that's often been accorded Federer, but he lost in the quarterfinals a year ago, is seeded third this year, and must wait until Tuesday to get started against Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan.
The second-seeded Djokovic, whose 43-match winning streak ended with a loss to Federer in Paris, also is scheduled to begin Tuesday, while No. 4 Murray is slated to play Daniel Gimeno-Traver of Spain on Centre Court today. The forecast calls for — surprise! — rain, but at the very least, matches in the main stadium shouldn't be affected because of the retractable roof in use since 2009.
Other men on today's slate include 2003 U.S. Open champion and three-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych and 10th-seeded Mardy Fish. Women scheduled to play include five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, and 2010 Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva.
Nadal has put together a rather remarkable run at Wimbledon of late, going 26-2 since the start of the 2006 tournament. He lost to Federer in the final that year and the following year, then beat Federer 9-7 in the fifth set in fading light in the 2008 title match. After missing the grass-court Grand Slam in 2009 because of tendinitis in his knees, Nadal returned to win it again in 2010.
“I'm not really surprised by his success. He's one of the greatest athletes ever, not just in tennis. So you find a way to adapt to the surface and the changes. I mean, maybe didn't take him as long to adapt, because the court surface is slower. Maybe 10, 15 years ago, it would have taken him a bit more time to get used to it,” said Murray, a two-time semifinalist at Wimbledon who once again will try to become Britain's first male Grand Slam champion since 1936.
“Every year he tries new things. He's improving things. He's returning closer to the baseline than he used to. He's serving a lot harder than he used to. He's made technical changes to his serve,” Murray continued. “He's found a way to play great tennis on this surface.”
Murray is a three-time runner-up at Grand Slam tournaments, including at the Australian Open in January, so he isn't quite yet in two-time major champion Djokovic's class — let alone Federer's or Nadal's.
But Murray reached the semifinals at the French Open despite injuring his right ankle there, then won the grass-court tuneup at Queen's Club last week. Clearly, he has become part of a foursome that has separated itself from the rest of the men on tour.
“We are playing well,” Nadal said. “I think Novak had a fantastic season; the first six months was really unbelievable. Roger, I think, had a very good season, and especially at this last tournament in Roland Garros played fantastic, in my opinion. And Andy, too, no? Andy, he had a very good start in Australia. ... He had a fantastic clay-court season.”
After talking up those other three, Nadal paused, then added an assessment of his own season.
“Well, I did very well the first six months. I lost a few finals, but I was in all the finals. I won three, and I won Roland Garros a few weeks ago; was a very important title for me,” he said. “And I'm here.”