Nadal the lead warrior in Spanish surge on grass

David Ferrer was one of a record five Spanish men who reached the third round of Wimbledon this year. AP Photo/Peter Dejong

WIMBLEDON, England -- There was a time not so long ago when Spanish tennis players were allergic to grass. They wrote off the short season. Some top pros skipped Wimbledon altogether.

That collective hay fever has cleared up. Instead, the Spaniards are making hay on the once-feared lawns of northern Europe. Leading up to Wimbledon, both of the country's top-10 players, Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, won grass court titles -- the first by players from that country in 36 years. Six of the eight Spanish players in the ATP's top 50 have career records well over .500 on grass.

A conscious decision to slow down the slippery surface has helped cure the Spanish contingent, whose games have been buoyed because it now is easier to win points from the baseline. But the biggest transformation has taken place above the neck.

Nadal's back-to-back appearances in the Wimbledon finals have helped fuel a contagious attitude and appetite for success on grass, said Pam Shriver, ESPN analyst and five-time Wimbledon doubles champion.

"I think it took them getting over the intimidation of it, figuring out that it's still a tennis court and the rules are the same even if the conditions are different," Shriver said. "Nadal's mentality was that he's always embraced playing Wimbledon. He's their lead warrior, and he's led the way."

Five-time defending champion Roger Federer, who had to lift his game to its highest level to stave off Nadal's challenge in their five-set classic in 2007, also buys into that theory.

"Rafa actually has been able to change mentality around for the Spanish players, because he's showing them that it is possible to play well with an aggressive baseline game," he said.

Nadal is obviously a candidate to become only the second Spanish man to win a Wimbledon championship, 42 years after Manuel Santana. Conchita Martinez is the lone Spanish woman to have hoisted the Venus Rosewater Dish. Countrywoman Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario lost consecutive finals to the peerless Steffi Graf in 1995 and 1996.

However, it was current No. 35 Feliciano Lopez who made Spain's first breakthrough of the new millennium. Lopez, a 6-foot-2 lefty with a formidable serve who plays a somewhat atypical game for his heritage, upended Marat Safin and Mario Ancic on his way to a Wimbledon quarterfinals appearance in 2005 -- the first by a Spanish player in 13 years. No. 23 Juan Carlos Ferrero also reached the quarters last year.

"I don't know if I am the leader," Nadal said with characteristic modesty. "Feliciano has a very good serve, very good volley. Everybody say Feliciano, he going to be a specialist on this surface.

"But probably I was the first who did a very good result playing normal -- aggressive from the baseline, but changing a little bit the tactic. But for sure I can't play the same like clay or hard, but playing from the baseline and playing rallies, for sure playing aggressive."

This month's results have been a watershed for the Spanish. Aside from Nadal's and Ferrer's victories at Queens (London) and 's-Hertogenbosch (Netherlands), No. 18 Fernando Verdasco made the finals in Nottingham, England, pushing towering Croatian Ivo Karlovic to three sets and two tiebreaks before falling.

"I think we have more aggressive games than Spanish players did maybe 10 or 15 years ago," Verdasco said after winning a first-round doubles match at Wimbledon with partner Lopez. "We want to improve on this surface."

Lopez agreed, adding, "Our games are more for all surfaces now."

Although slower courts and what are widely acknowledged to be heavier tennis balls don't hurt them, Lopez and Verdasco said much of their increased confidence comes from a simple commitment to play in one or both of the grass-court events leading up to Wimbledon.

"I feel so much better than I did in Queens," said Verdasco, who advanced to the fourth round of the Wimbledon men's singles Friday with a straight-sets win over Tomas Berdych.

And then there's the Nadal effect.

"Sometimes you try hard and play your best and you don't get the results," Lopez said. "Once a Spanish player plays good, and you see how he is doing, at least you have something to believe in."

For the most part, the players said they don't tinker with their games much, although Lopez (predictably) tends to serve and volley more, and Verdasco said he tries to keep his center of gravity lower to deal with the different bounce.

"Our game is not going to the net," Nadal observed this week. "But probably in the past was a little bit mistake try to change a lot your game when you are playing on grass, no?"

Coach and ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert said that in the past, some Spanish players "panicked" and tried to play a completely different style on grass, with disastrous results.

"When you grow up on clay, you can make adjustments to other surfaces," he said. "And the Spanish players are just great movers."

The women have been slower to progress, although 19-year-old Carla Suarez Navarro, the qualifier who counterpunched her way to the French Open quarterfinals, won her first match on grass here. "I try to use more slice on the service," she said.

Veteran Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, ousted in the first round in her only other visit here in 2001, upset 32nd seed Sania Mirza to reach the third round Thursday and next faces Venus Williams. Martinez said the recent success of other Spanish players inspired her to ask herself, "Why not?" Anabel Medina Garrigues also advanced to the round of 32.

As a group, Spanish tennis players no longer resemble gazelles on ice so much as deer grazing in a meadow. With their soccer team in the finals of the European championships, they seem to be intent on proving that it's possible to succeed in two different fields.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.