Spanish Armada sails to sports prominence
The entire top quarter of the men's draw is populated by Spanish surnames: Lopez, Verdasco, Ferrer, Nadal. It could be the semis of a fine clay-court championship in Barcelona.
But this isn't Barcelona, or the red-brick terre battue of Roland Garros. This is the US Open, on the lightning-fast asphalt in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
It's a new world.
This has already been an extraordinary, record-setting first week for Spanish men at the Open, in what has been a spectacular sports year for Spain. Six Spanish men, with world No. 1 Rafael Nadal leading the way, have made it through to the Round of 16.
That equals the previous record at the French Open, where six Spaniards -- who have long felt at home on the Paris clay -- reached the fourth round in 1998. Spanish men have won 10 French Open championships in the past 18 years.
Spain's breakout performance at the Open comes in a year of global sports domination for Spain. In July, Spain won its first World Cup in fútbol, with Nadal cheering on La Furia Roja (The Spanish Fury). Fresh from seizing his second title at Wimbledon, Nadal raced to South Africa, donned face paint and hung out in the locker room as Spain's exquisite precision passing game outclassed the Netherlands, 1-0.
Also in July, Alberto Contador, who grew up in a small village outside Madrid, won his third Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious Grand Tour. Spaniards have won the last five Tours de France (with Oscar Pereiro and Carlos Sastre joining Contador on the podium), and prior to Lance Armstrong's dominance, Miguel Indurain, from Navarra, captured five straight Tour wins in the 1990s.
But it's Nadal who's the most recognized Spanish athlete on the planet. At the tender age of 24, Nadal, from the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, has won eight Grand Slams. In July he captured the French Open (his fifth) and Wimbledon back-to-back for the second time. He is ranked No. 1 in the world and, as the top seed at the US Open, is bidding to win a career Slam, seeking to add the only one of the four he doesn't already list on his swelling resume.
The success could not come at a more opportune time for Spain. The Iberian nation, which joined the European Union in 1986 after nearly four decades of dictatorship and isolation from Western Europe, has been hit harder by the worldwide recession than almost any other developed nation. Unemployment is officially about 20 percent, with as much as 40 percent of young people out of work. A housing crisis and financial turmoil, including troubled banks, have led to Spain's credit-ratings downgrade and a new cycle of pessimism.
But Spanish spirits have been momentarily lifted over the last few months, not by hopeful economic news, but by the world-beating exploits of Nadal, Contador and España's national team. And the successes have given this country, home to autonomous regions and longtime independence movements, something to unite behind.
Spain is riding a wave of success in other fields, too. Long a leader in world tourism, the nation of 45 million people welcomes nearly 60 million visitors annually to its beaches and historic cities. Spain has also been celebrated for its culinary achievements.
Ferrán Adrià, the experimental chef-wizard-scientist of El Bulli, the impossible-to-get-into restaurant on the Costa Brava, has routinely been labeled the greatest chef on the planet, and his restaurant lauded as the most spectacular in the world (now for the bad news: it's closing in 2012).
Other innovative chefs and restaurants in Barcelona, San Sebastián (in Spain's northern Basque country), Madrid and other cities have garnered worldwide accolades. San Sebastián is said to have more Michelin-starred restaurants per-capita than any city in the world, and Spain is widely thought to have surpassed France as a culinary destination.
The recent Newsweek survey of "The World's Top Countries," which rated a variety of cultural and quality-of-life factors, named Spain a "foodie's mecca" and "the Best Place to Dine" in the world.
Even Nadal, in his ubiquitous Tennis Channel spot, touts Spanish paprika and olive oil in his favorite recipe of "pasta and gambas."
Of course, all eyes are on Nadal, but at least one Spanish man is guaranteed to make a semifinal at the 2010 US Open. If it weren't for the fact that the top quarter -- Nadal's section -- is so stacked with swashbuckling Spaniards, it's conceivable that the final weekend would have an even stronger Spanish flavor.
Amid the culinary options on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, there's not yet a paella place or a great joint for tapas. But the Stonyfield Café in the Food Court does feature gazpacho on the menu.
I'd suggest they stock up.