Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Is it me or does Rafael Nadal look like the favorite for the upcoming French Open?
Despite never having played at Roland Garros, the 18-year-old Spaniard (who will turn 19 during the French) is playing the best clay-court tennis of anyone in the world right now (with honorable mention to reigning French Open champ Gaston Gaudio).
At the time of this article (Nadal's competing in Rome as we speak), the hard- hitting teen was seeking his 14th straight match victory and his fifth title of the year -- all on clay. He's a sizzling 27-2 on the surface this season.
The gritty Spaniard is second overall (behind only Roger Federer) in the 2005 ATP Race and currently leads the circuit with 37 match wins (37-6). The great Federer is 35-2.
Nadal already owns four clay-court titles this season.
Last month, the 6-1, 185-pound lefty pushed the mighty "Fed" to five sets in the Nasdaq-100 Open finale in Miami and hoisted his first-ever Masters Series championship trophy in Monte-Carlo by beating 2004 French Open runner-up Guillermo Coria of Argentina in a marquee title match. He also knocked out the high-flying Gaudio in the quarters in Monaco, which was payback after Gaudio erased him in a quarterfinal bout in Buenos Aires in February.
Nadal's other '05 titles have come in Costa do Sauipe (Brazil), Acapulco and Barcelona, where he whipped his countryman and former world No. 1 and 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final.
Four of Nadal's five career singles titles have come this year and I'm pretty sure he's gonna add to that total before the year's up. All five of his championships have come on the dirt, his preferred surface.
When "Rafa" makes the trip to Paris in three weeks, it'll mark his first- ever venture into the main draw there. But he'll still be among the favorites (if not the favorite) on the slow red clay at RG.
Nadal lost to former No. 1 Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in five sets in the fourth round of the hardcourt Australian Open back in January.
The always-confident Nadal entered 2005 at No. 51 in the world. Don't look now, but he's already up to No. 7 and we're only in the first week of May. I'd be talking about him as a future No. 1 if a guy named Federer wasn't around.
Nadal, as you would expect, is your typical baseliner from Spain, but he does have some qualities that separate him, such as a massive forehand, that lefthanded serve that seems to get better every time you see him and a swagger that has carried him to his lofty tennis status at such a young age.
His game is just perfect for the clay courts. Heavy groundstrokes, great speed and a bulldog-like approach on every point.
Will the prodigy hoist the Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris next month?