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Grapevine: Analysis: Alonsomania Beats Soccer

In a soccer-obsessed country like Spain it takes something special to push what they call "el deporte rey" (the king of sports) off the front pages of the sporting dailies

Fernando Alonso and Rafael Nadal did just that this week.

Alonso, 23, won a thrilling duel with seven-times World Champion Michael Schumacher in Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix hours before 18-year-old Nadal produced a superlative display of high-energy tennis to win the Barcelona Open title.

For once sporting conversations are revolving around the exploits of these young men rather than the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Over the years Spain has produced its fair share of exceptional sportsmen and women. Seve Ballesteros upset golf's established order in the 1970s and 80s while cyclist Miguel Indurain won five consecutive Tours de France.

Like Ballesteros, Nadal has charisma, talent and good looks.

The only matches that drew a capacity crowd at the centre court in Barcelona were those involving the Mallorcan.

Every one of his matches was carried live on state television and his doubles matches pulled in more fans than most of those in the singles draw.

Adoring Hordes

Such was his popularity that the organisers of the tournament were obliged to put on extra security to protect him from the hordes of fans that tracked his every step.

With his long brown hair, fluorescent orange sleeveless shirt and bandana, Nadal is already one of the hottest properties in the sport.

Nike have made him the centre of an advertising campaign in Spain using the slogan "Tennis has changed - get used to it."

A member of Spain's Davis Cup-winning team in 2004, Nadal came within a whisker of upsetting world number one Roger Federer in the final of the Nasdaq-100 this month.

He became the youngest player since Michael Chang in 1990 to win a Masters Series event in Monte Carlo and his performance in Barcelona fired him into the top 10, displacing Carlos Moya as the top-ranked Spaniard.

With 25 wins and just two losses on clay this year, Nadal will have a real chance of claiming his first grand slam at the French Open next month.

Claycourt tennis has always been one of Spain's strong sporting suits whereas until the emergence of Alonso, Formula One was of minority interest.

Spaniards have a far greater passion for motorcycling, a sport at which they have traditionally excelled.

Formula One was seen as an exclusive and rather dull testing ground for the high-tech innovations of car manufacturers.

Snowballing Interest

Nothing breeds interest like success and ever since the Asturian's first Grand Prix victory in Hungary in 2003, the sport's popularity has snowballed.

Spain never carried Formula One races live on television until Alonso's emergence. A peak audience of more than seven million - a figure that comes close to rivalling that for a Real-Barca clash - watched his victory at Imola on Sunday.

The crowds at the final of the Barcelona tennis Open stayed outside the centre court to watch the end of the race, even Nadal and Juan Carlos Ferrero were late because they were glued to the screen in the players' lounge.

Racing Santander players refused to get off their coach for the Primera Liga match against Deportivo Coruna until they had finshing watching the race.

Interest in Alonso outstrips that in other home-grown sporting heroes like Real's Raul, NBA basketball player Pau Gasol and double motorcycling world champion Dani Pedrosa.

Children swap Formula One stickers at school and the remote-controlled version of the Alonso car is one of the biggest sellers in toy shops.

The driver's image is plastered on advertising hoardings in every major city and sales of Renault saloon cars are on the up.

A record 115,000 fans will pack the Circuit de Catalunya next weekend as Alonso attempts to win his home Grand Prix.

For the first time organisers say they expect the majority of fans to come from Spain itself, many making the trip across Spain from the driver's native Asturias whose blue and yellow flag neatly matches the Renault team colours.

For Spanish sports fans it is time to celebrate.

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