Nadal must reckon with young upstarts

His success has brought a once-elite sport to the masses with six Spaniards in the top 25 and pushing the world No 1.

NEW YORK // Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco will meet today in the first all-Spanish quarter-final in US Open history as the world No 1 continues to be pushed by players in his own country this week. And the fact that the United States failed to advance a man to the quarter-finals for the second consecutive year will not be lost on the Spaniard.

The emergence of Nadal, who beat countryman Feliciano Lopez in the fourth round, has helped Spain bring what was once viewed as an elite sport to the masses. More courts have been built and court time that used to be prohibitively expensive now comes more cheaply. More teachers are being trained and more players being lured. Young, elite athletes see there is a route to success that used to be reserved mostly for football.

"They have a lot of courts. They have a lot of good facilities to practice well," Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, the world No 12 who eliminated Spaniard Tommy Robredo in a fourth-round match, said. "I think it's not really expensive to practice in Spain for Spanish people. In Russia now it's expensive to practice in Moscow. Not everybody can do this." More children practicing gradually leads to a larger pool of elite teenagers, which in turn produces professionals, a handful of whom were still in the mix at Flushing Meadows.

"When you have more people to compete, you have to improve your game to get better," Lopez said. "I don't know if this is one of the reasons that make Spanish tennis very strong. Probably." Watching with interest are player-development officials in the United States, where much has been made this summer of the slump this country is going through. Spain's six players in the last 16 tied the most for a foreign country since the Open era began in 1968.

The US tennis programme, meanwhile, made its biggest headlines earlier this year when Andy Roddick briefly dropped out of the top 10, leaving no US man in the top 10 for the first time since the rankings began in 1973. This year, Roddick was ousted in the second round of a tournament he won in 2003. Nadal still needs a US Open title to complete his career Grand Slam. But if he does not get it done this year, there are plenty of other Spanish candidates.

"It's always nice to see all the Spanish winning and being in the last rounds, no?" Verdasco said. "So, if you need to lose, it's better to lose against a Spanish player, then at least one guy is going to be there one round more, no?" Sparked by Nadal's surge to the summit of tennis, the country has produced six men in the world's top 25. "Clearly, Rafa and Fernando Verdasco are Spain's best athletes," said Mardy Fish, an American, after he was eliminated on Monday.

"Obviously, soccer is their biggest sport, but tennis is right there. I mean, Rafael Nadal is arguably the biggest sporting athlete they've ever had." All this, including Spain's recent football World Cup success, is connected, according to one widely held theory. It is the classic case of success breeding success. * Associated Press