Rafael Nadal of Spain hits balls into the crowd after...

Rafael Nadal of Spain hits balls into the crowd after beating Gilles Simon of France 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Spain is not exactly some new planet in the tennis cosmos, with past U.S. Open champions Manuel Orantes (1975) and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994) among the Spaniards who long ago wrote their names into the Grand Slam history books.

But that nation's noticeable presence in the men's field well into this year's Open, dovetailing with so much stewing over the recent lack of an American title contender, is meriting special attention in Flushing Meadows. Might those hombres know something about this sport that would benefit the Yanks' player development?

"Sure," said Patrick McEnroe, who was named head of the U.S. Tennis Association's player development program two years ago and immediately hired former Spanish pro Jose Higueras to coordinate the organization's coaching philosophy.

The Spanish discussion goes beyond top-ranked Rafael Nadal, already with eight major titles at 24 and the likes of whom few countries ever see. McEnroe cautioned that building potential major singles winners is no simple exercise, but he and Higueras believe there are good reasons that Spain sent six men through to the Open's fourth round this year, with at least two guaranteed to be among the eight quarterfinalists.

Higueras, twice a French Open semifinalist and since the coach of major champions Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras and - briefly - Roger Federer, narrowed the Spaniards' training emphasis down to three primary aspects:

Movement "in every direction," he said. "Laterally, diagonally, forward, back. They play great percentages. And the third thing is their shot tolerance."

By shot tolerance he meant, he said, the willingness to play as many shots as necessary to "stay in the point." But not in a defensive, passive mode. Rather, a "middle ground" between going "a thousand miles an hour . . . and being more consistent. It's about playing good percentages."

For years, Spaniards have been labeled clay-court specialists, at their best on a surface that blunts overpowering serves and fosters patience. Both McEnroe and three-time former Open champion Ivan Lendl spoke this week about the benefits of learning the game on clay - then translating the more complete skills to other surfaces.

"Spain is doing pretty well on these hard courts," McEnroe understated. Because, Higueras said, "If you grow up on hard courts, on a fast surface, missing becomes a lot more normal because you don't have much chance to get set up. On clay, the misses are not as acceptable."

There is a familiar American argument, mentioned again Monday by the just-eliminated Mardy Fish, that Spain benefits from the status of tennis - near a par with soccer and not in competition with football, baseball and basketball - to get the country's best athletes into the sport. McEnroe rejected that, saying: "Absolutely not. I believe it's not the athletes, it's what they learn."

The United States has a population seven times that of Spain for culling top jocks. And Fish did note of the Spanish tennis pros, "they're all in unbelievable shape. You won't come across a top-50 Spaniard who is afraid to take his shirt off in practice, and looks good doing it.

"They're fit, and having a high [ranking] number next to their names means they have to be successful on all surfaces."

For the Americans, this may be an "ay, caramba" moment.

More tennis