Posted by Luke Cyphers
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- There was but a single Spain jersey to be seen during a stroll through District One here on Sunday, and the lovely young woman in the No. 9 jersey, sitting on her boyfriend's lap, didn't get the memo that Fernando Torres is out of form just now, and that David Villa's No. 7 might be a better wardrobe choice from a fan credibility standpoint.
No surprise, then, when the restaurant she sat in did not have the Wimbledon men's final on the television. Because any true Spain fan would have been glued to Wimbledon, his or her eyes on Rafa.
Rafael Nadal, who won the Wimbledon title in straight sets over Tomas Berdych, epitomizes the new Spain, and the new Spanish athlete -- the one who works and grinds and never gives up. And wins.
As I wrote in a World Cup preview story for ESPN The Magazine, Spain is on a remarkable run of sports glory. A country the size of Texas has produced world champions in everything from basketball to auto racing, and the Spanish soccer team's success over the past three years is perhaps the most celebrated triumph. A World Cup victory would be the exclamation point on a decade of superlatives.
Soccer dominates the national consciousness, and this generation of players is Spain's most successful ever. But as good as Villa and Xavi and Iker Casillas are, they don't epitomize the country's new winning spirit.
Every Spanish athlete interviewed for the Mag story, from the Gasol brothers to Sergio Garcia, pointed to Nadal as the nation's sports inspiration. His gritty style and relentless pursuit of Roger Federer draw admiration from all of Spain's big-name athletes.
Thanks largely to Nadal, Spanish athletes don't think of themselves as chokers, no matter what their history books say. They are fighters, able to deal with adversity. You could see it when Spain regrouped after losing its World Cup opener to Switzerland, and you could see it even more on Saturday night when La Furia Roja became the first Spanish side ever to make the semifinals of this tournament. A hungry opponent, bad breaks and a referee's whistle all appeared set to deny Spain a victory over Paraguay.
But this team keeps at it. If Pedro's shot hits the post, then Villa will track down the rebound and shoot it again until he gets the right bounce. This team doesn't curse its luck. It makes its own, just like Nadal.
On Sunday, Nadal fought swirling winds and his own serve at times. He committed uncharacteristic unforced errors on his forehand. Didn't matter. Give up three break points in the first set? Keep playing, stay in points, stretch the game to 10 minutes. And hold serve. Even when his skills aren't all there, Nadal hangs in until he wins.
It's a lesson his counterparts on the soccer field have learned, as well. Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas are slowed by injuries? So what? Get the ball to Andres Iniesta and Villa. Hang in 'til you win.
This team is aware of what its generation has done across the sportscape, and takes pride in it. Many of the footballers know Nadal, and like him. He played their game before deciding on tennis, after all, and one of his uncles played for the national team. He's a huge fan. Asked before the Wimbledon final if he had made time for the World Cup, he said, "I always have time for football. Every match." If Spain hoists the trophy next Sunday, he said, "It will be a dream."
And just one part of a dream summer. It's possible that by the end of July, Spaniards will have won an NBA title (Pau Gasol), Wimbledon, the World Cup and the Tour de France (Alberto Contador).
Of course, that might not happen. Spain might not have what it takes to derail Germany's swift, young lineup in Wednesday's semifinal. La Roja might have peaked two years ago in winning Euro 2008.
But they're still here, so they'll keep grinding.
Just like Rafa.