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Several stepping up to challenge Nadal

Two titles in two tournaments, one set dropped in 10 matches -- no need to ask why they call Rafael Nadal The King of Clay.

The Spaniard's decisive but often thrilling defeat of David Ferrer on a rainy day in Rome not only earned Rafa his fifth Italian title in six attempts, but also reaffirmed his status as the pre-eminent clay court player of his generation and, alongside Bjorn Borg, possibly the greatest of all time.

Now that he is fit again and untroubled by knee problems, this does not come as much of a surprise. The test for Nadal now is to remain as dominant at altitude next week in Madrid, where the ball travels faster through the air -- conditions that helped Roger Federer beat him in the final there last year. And then, of course, there will be the rather important business of reclaiming the French Open crown that was so rudely snatched from his grasp by Robin Soderling last year -- a barely believable upset that enabled Federer to go on and win the title.

But these past few weeks on European clay have thrown other players into the spotlight, which, when allied to some earlier successes this year, has made them ones to watch as we move toward the heated competition of the summer.

It was not merely by chasing balls all over the court and bringing off a clever if ultimately fruitless shot from behind his back that David Ferrer caught the eye in Rome. He had played a great match to beat Andy Murray in the third round and was coming off two consecutive semifinal showings in Monte Carlo and Barcelona to go along with the title he won in Acapulco in February. The short, muscular battler from Valencia had also reached the semifinal in Johannesburg and, at the age of 28, is enjoying one of his most successful years in a career in which he has already risen to No 4 in the world back in February 2008.

But it is another Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco, who can lay claim to an even more successful season so far. Beating Andy Roddick to win an indoor title in San Jose was impressive enough, and a quarterfinal in Miami offered further evidence of how much the left-hander has improved since he began working with Darren Cahill, Gil Reyes and the Adidas team in Las Vegas. But he then switched to the clay and started to look like a really formidable competitor. Wins over Thomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic took him to the final in Monte Carlo, where it required Nadal to stop him, but that was only a punctuation mark as Verdasco continued the story in Barcelona, where he won the title for the first time with excellent wins over Ferrer and Soderling in the last two rounds.

It took Ferrer to break his winning streak in the semifinal last week at the Foro Italico, and this aggressive player will go into Madrid and head on to Paris with his confidence justifiably high.

And then there is Ernests Gulbis. Handling the mighty Ivo Karlovic serve so fearlessly in the final of Delray Beach in February earned this 21-year-old Latvian his first ATP title, and that was capped by his stunning victory over Federer on the new Campo Centrale in Rome. We have talked before about this player's immense talent and how, for most of 2009, it remained unfulfilled. He has pointed to a lingering knee injury and lack of strength in his thighs as reasons for his tardy progress, but now all that seems behind him.

He needed seven match points before he could complete his victory over Federer, but despite being wracked with nerves as the match points came and went, he recovered his composure pretty quickly when interviewed courtside through the headphones by Sky TV's Marcus Buckland back in the London studio.

"Was that the highlight of your career?" Buckland asked.

"That's a rhetorical question," Gulbis shot back.

Not a bad reply for a man using a second language. Gulbis smiled and went on to acknowledge that, for the first time in his career, he had felt his body shaking as he tried to close out the match, 7-5 in the third, against the world No 1. Having beaten Marcos Baghdatis in the first round, Gulbis went on to beat Fillipo Volandri and Fernando Lopez in the next two rounds before taking the second set off Nadal in the semifinal, serving 14 aces to none as he kept the defending champion on court for 4 hours, 47 minutes.

With his huge serve and all-round racket ability, the Latvian is obviously good enough to thrive on all surfaces and, under the tutelage of his Argentine coach Hernan Gumy, it will be fascinating to see how quickly he can rise in the coming weeks. His performance in Rome lifted Gulbis to a career high of 35 on the ATP computer but that, for Ernests, should only be the beginning.