Head2Head: Can Rafa win the US Open?
Originally published on: 12/08/10 13:14
Let’s put the question another way: what’s standing between Rafael Nadal and a first US Open title?
Nothing new, that’s for sure.
The Spaniard has eight Grand Slams, four Davis Cup titles, 18 Masters 1000 titles and an Olympic gold medal to his name. That leaves just two matches of any great note now missing from his resume: a final spot at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals is one, but that comes a distant second to appearing in the US Open title match.
He has made the semi-finals for the past two years, losing to Andy Murray as high winds lashed the American east coast in 2008 and taking a hiding from eventual champion Juan Martin del Potro shortly after missing most of the summer to nurse those creaky knees. All things considered, none too shabby.
Since April, Rafael Nadal has returned to a new best. New, in the sense that his priorities have, if not changed, been refined. While Roger Federer embraced the challenge of conquering the Everest of Grand Slam dominance during his career to date, Nadal appears to be striving for something more visceral, more unattainable – becoming the complete tennis player, proving himself adept on any surface and in any scenario, allowing the Grand Slams to come as they may. Throughout his career, he has focused on nothing more than winning – every point, game, set, match and tournament.
|Nadal set his mind to converting his clay court
game for Wimbledon: mission accomplished
In that regard, not much has changed. The difference in the new Nadal, the man with the most famous knock-knees in sport, is that he has become more discerning with his targets. In 2008 he carpet-bombed the Tour’s trophy room, and his body was the collateral damage. This season, ever since he made the wrenching decision to forgo the defence of his title in Barcelona after clinching his first title in nearly a year in Monte Carlo, it’s become clear that he and his team are cherry-picking their targets with greater precision.
And right now, Nadal’s sights are locked on New York. He said as much after winning Wimbledon, as did Uncle Toni. Conquering the Flushing Meadows hard courts wouldn’t be another tick on the checklist but another feather in his cap, one that proves his ever-increasing versatility for the global game. The clay-court scrambler who made Roland Garros his own has now conquered the grass of Wimbledon – twice – and, having won the Australian Open in 2009, a US Open title would cement his status as one of the game’s finest all-surface players, just as Roland Garros did for Federer.
Maybe the problem with Nadal’s Flushing CV to date is that he doesn’t have a ‘popcorn victory’, something that really make people sit up and take notice. That’s partly the luck of the draw: in his seven US Open appearances to date, he has played top-ten opposition just three times, and has lost all three (along with those defeats to Murray and del Potro, Nadal lost to defending champion Andy Roddick in the second round in 2004). Make it to the latter stages once more, however, and if recent seasons are anything to go by, only the best will be waiting.
Novak Djokovic’s seven wins against Nadal have all come on the hard stuff, and the Serb is, as the rankings suggest, the likeliest threat to the Spaniard’s New York ambitions this summer. As things stand, the pair could only meet in the final; a potential showdown with Roger Federer in the semis – possible now the Swiss, a five-time champion in NYC, has slipped to No.3 in the rankings – could be just the popcorn tie Nadal needs to silence the doubters. Both have to get there first, though.
So, what’s standing between Rafael Nadal and the US Open title? Seven matches. Seven men. Same as everybody else, same as it is every year. He’s dealt with that twice already this season, and he’s done it on a hard court before. Anything can happen in a New York minute, but it seems when Rafael Nadal puts his mind to a task, he tends to deliver.
The Spaniard wins matches out of habit, trophies for fun. He’s habitually tugged his shorts, meticulously positioned his bottles, and drained the living daylights out of the poor bloke on the other side of the net to win five titles in his last six events. With each and every one, a gleeful nibble on silver marks the successful result of a week or two’s worth of intense competition. Forehands with cartoon-like trajectories, double-fisted slapped backhands that scream across the surface, and pinpoint serves that swing to unreachable widths on the most crucial of points. Technical nous mixed with mental strength. It’s what Rafa does best. It’s the reason he sits atop the world rankings. It’s the reason he’s racked up 47 match-wins to just five defeats this season. And incidentally, it is that very stat that exemplifies why he’ll never win his career slam, since four of those five defeats have come on a hard court. Yes, Nadal has a game moulded perfectly to clay, and one that he has masterfully adapted to grass, but can it really deal with the rigours of seven-straight matches on a hard court? In short, no, this year’s US Open – and all those beyond – are destined to elude him.
Don’t get me wrong, the 24-year-old Mallorcan is in the midst of another unbelievable season. But just like the early half of his phenomenal 2008, on a hard court, Nadal hasn’t come close to the near-untouchable ‘aura’ he oozes on clay – or even grass. Two years ago, he opened his season on the hard courts of Chennai and made the final, only to lose to a scoreline you’d scarcely believe could be associated with the eight-time Grand Slam champ. Mikhail Youzhny beat him 6-0 6-1. He then lost in straight sets in the Melbourne semis to surprise finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It wasn’t until July of that year that he managed to win a hard court title – beating world No.37 Nicolas Kiefer to win the Rogers Cup.
|His last hard-court Grand Slam outing ended with
retirement with a knee tear against Andy Murray
Nadal’s hard court start to this season was eventful, but not in the manner he hoped for. A knee tear at the Australian Open saw him drop to No.4 in the world after a spell on the sidelines. We have short memories, it seems, for the Spaniard’s phenomenal summer has quietened the doubts over his lingering weakness – the fragile knees, and his ability to deal with the pressure on his joints and the exemplified shocks, stresses and strains that a hard court delivers to the body.
Cast your mind back to Miami, or to Indian Wells, where Nadal made the semi-finals. It was an admirable enough achievement for any lesser mortal, but in his defeats to the respective tournament’s eventual champions – Andy Roddick and Ivan Ljubicic, there was something that we hadn’t seen before from Nadal. Something called fear.
“I need to play consecutive matches knowing that nothing will happen to me if I push myself to the limit,” he said following the Australian Open. “Subconsciously I have more fear now, I don’t know if the limit I’m setting is the real one.”
The ‘limit’ for Nadal on any other surface is the sky, but the 2009 Australian Open remains his only hard court slam triumph. The Melbourne tournament is one notorious for surprises, and that’s not to suggest the world No.1 could ever be classed a surprise champ, but the year’s opening slam tends to favour those who have worked hardest over the off-season. ‘Rafael Nadal’ is the definition and epitome of hard work – his eventual victory over a tearful Federer was almost a logical outcome.
But the Rafa versus Roger days are nearing an end. The pair’s rivalry may remain tennis’ calling card, but given that they’ve played just three times in the past two years, it is a rivalry based on great shows of old. This month’s US Open is not simply Federer’s to lose, there are too many other contenders vying for the prize for that, but if Wimbledon is his back garden, Flushing Meadows is his courtyard out the front.
To Nadal, New York is a vertical version of that concrete courtyard. The wall he just can’t climb.