-- The arbiters of decorum at the All England club have given their approval to the quirky clam-digger trousers that teenage sensation Rafael Nadal sported en route to his French Open victory last month. This matter of on-court fashion settled, tennis fans are clamoring to see whether the club's grass courts prove as welcoming to Nadal's idiosyncratic style of play as Wimbledon gets under way this week.
The Spaniard proved himself the world's best on clay in his dazzling debut at the French Open, dismantling the supremely gifted Roger Federer in the semifinals and then out-slugging a spirited Mariano Puerta for his first Grand Slam title earlier this month. And nearly everyone associated with tennis save Federer, who is unaccustomed to losing, exulted over the emergence of such a charismatic player, whose athletic ability, tenacity and sheer joy, it seemed, stood poised to raise the caliber of play in the game and create legions of new fans along the way.
But as the tennis tour bids adieu to the clay-court season and returns to its grass-court roots, naysayers are tripping over one another to temper expectations about the 19-year-old Nadal, who, they caution, is too inexperienced, too defensively oriented and too one-dimensional to go far at Wimbledon.
"Nadal is not going to be able to perform at Wimbledon for a while," ESPN commentator and former touring pro Cliff Drysdale said in a conference call last week. "I'm giving him two, three or four years. And even then I'm not sure his game is going to be suited to a really fast grass-court surface or any grass court. The basics of his game are not sufficiently aggressive for him to be able to win Wimbledon for at least a few years."
Federer apparently agrees, failing to mention Nadal, the world's third-ranked player, among those he deems a challenge as he pursues his third consecutive Wimbledon title -- a list he restricted to American Andy Roddick, Australian Lleyton Hewitt and the 30-year-old Briton, Tim Henman. Grass poses a fundamental problem for clay-court specialists, Federer noted Sunday, because it prevents them from sliding, which is critical to timing shots on slower clay courts.
"Already that changes a lot in the footwork," Federer said. "Right away the points are played differently, you know, where he has to go for more. He feels like the opponents are more dangerous. And he's more vulnerable."
Nadal isn't quibbling with the skeptics. It's not false modesty. Nadal has played just four top-level matches on grass. His record is 2-2 after reaching the third round of Wimbledon in 2003 and crashing out in the first round of last week's tuneup in Halle, Germany. Federer won that title and, in doing so, extended his winning streak on grass to 29 matches.
Meeting with reporters Saturday, Nadal stressed that his goal in the coming fortnight is simply to improve his grass-court game so that someday he can accomplish great things at Wimbledon.
"On clay I can win a lot of matches if I play my best tennis," Nadal told the Associated Press. "But it is different on grass. I have to improve, and at the moment I do not have the preparation to go far in the grass-court tournament. I need to improve a lot my serve, my volley, my aggressive shots."
Only one Spaniard has won Wimbledon in its 118-year history. And the notion that any Spaniard would come along to equal Manuel Santana's 1966 achievement had become implausible in recent years, in which specialization has ruled the day. Of the four French Open champions to precede Nadal, three didn't even bother playing at Wimbledon the same year -- Argentina's Gaston Gaudio (2004), Spain's Albert Costa (2002) and Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten (2001) -- either declaring themselves so exhausted by the grind in Paris or too confounded by the grass of Wimbledon.
But happily, that doesn't appear to be the case for Nadal, who grew up in a country without grass courts yet has proclaimed Wimbledon the title he covets most. What sets Nadal apart is his fierce desire -- not just to win every point, but to master every surface. So far, his attempt has captivated the sport's cognoscenti and made for compelling viewing.
"He's a highlight film in and of himself," ESPN commentator and former pro Mary Carillo said. "You can't get a static shot of him; he's always doing something. Even when he's standing still, there is something to like about what he's expressing."
Indeed there is something electric about the way Nadal wallops his topspin forehand, uncorking the full weight of his 6-foot-1, 165-pound frame into his signature shot. And it's mesmerizing to watch him flash from defense to offense, salvaging a point with a blistering passing shot or perfectly placed lob. Federer may be more fluid, like watching poetry. But Federer's joy is largely private, his sublime skills a source of inner satisfaction. Nadal's love of tennis is laid bare with every stroke, as if joy of such magnitude must be shared.
"He plays with a passion on the court that I think he was born with," Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. "He loves to be out there; he gets excited. He gets into it, but he doesn't rub it in your face. I like that he celebrates his good shots, but he doesn't do it at the expense of his opposition."
Recent tennis history suggests that Nadal won't be celebrating much at Wimbledon, where he opens play Tuesday against American Vince Spadea. It has been 25 years since a French Open champion went on to win Wimbledon, last achieved by Bjorn Borg. Some say it's no longer possible given the power and pace of today's game.
"It [requires] an uncanny ability emotionally to be able to spend yourself twice for two solid weeks on two such diverse surfaces," Carillo said. "You have to be a superior athlete, and you have to be so mentally fit."
While Nadal has proven himself as physically and mentally fit as anyone on the tour, conventional wisdom says that grass will expose his shortcomings (a weak second serve and an unremarkable backhand and service-return) as surely as clay accentuates his strengths (topspin forehand, stamina and resolve).
"I don't think he's a threat to win Wimbledon, but I wouldn't underestimate him," McEnroe said. "There are a lot of guys who wouldn't want to face him in the first round of a major."
Just ask Puerta, who offered nothing but praise after losing to Nadal in Paris. Asked to handicap Nadal's prospects of winning Wimbledon, Puerta said: "If it's his objective, he will make it. I think it doesn't matter how much he will have to work, even if it's difficult. Even if it's playing on grass, he will try. He will commit himself. He succeeded in doing many things up till now already."