Rafael Nadal has traditionally finished his best tennis by the time July flips into August. While widely applauded as "The King of Clay," the Spaniard has never earned a moniker for his play on fast, hard courts. Tennis fans will never call him "The Sultan of Cement."
Many people categorize Nadal’s career from August-December as a gaping hole in his resume to be considered the Greatest Player of All Time (GOAT).
He has won 57 career titles, but only six of them were on hard courts in the August-December span. Since, 2005, his only three titles have been the 2008 Olympics in China, the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2010 Japan Open.
The struggles of late summer and fall are well-documented. The fast courts neutralize his greatest tennis advantages. He has battled knee tendinitis and blamed hard courts for his injuries. It’s clear that to Nadal, hard courts are a necessary evil at best and more suited for the outer realms of Hades.
These years, Nadal has not proven he can succeed on fast courts. He has been dusted in early rounds two consecutive years at Wimbledon, a tournament of which he once competed in five finals in six years. He has also not played on fast courts since 2011.
So Nadal certainly cannot be considered a favorite ahead of Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. He might be listed behind an ailing Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer, if one simply looks at performance and production the past two years.
But don’t close your eyes if Nadal is lurking in the dark.
The Unconventional Swordsman
The greatest swordsman is not afraid of the second-greatest swordsman. It’s the unconventional swordsman who can defeat him.
Nadal is the ultimate unconventional tennis champion. It’s simply impossible for most players to prepare for his unique barrage of skills. There’s never been another left-hander in the history of tennis who could adapt to his clay-court skills behind a heavy topspin forehand and exceptional defensive retrieving.
Even so, Nadal is hardly infallible on hard courts. He has lost six straight times to Nikolay Davydenko on hard courts and five straight times to Djokovic away from clay. Clearly, Nadal has to avoid plenty of his Kryptonite.
But it’s the possibility of Nadal finding magic in his game that excites his followers. If he gets in the zone, watch out.
There are two X-factors to watch in Nadal, if he is to bolster his tennis attack on concrete: First, he must serve better and pick up cheap points. More importantly, he must confidently wield his best backhand and have the confidence to rip it flatter and earlier. He simply cannot play clay-court tennis by standing in the bleachers and running around for forehands.
Watch for these two X-factors. If they are sharp, he can be a major threat to win the U.S. Open.
The Comeback King
Right now, Nadal is playing with house money. He does not have the historical pressures to defend his clay-court titles. If he wins, it’s an epic achievement, but if he loses, it’s not like his legacy hinges upon it. There is more opportunity than expectation.
At times in the past, Nadal has come back from career-threatening episodes to rise up and contend for the top crowns in tennis. Most recently, his comeback from February to June netted seven titles, including the French Open. He likes to buck the odds when the chips are down.
It might be better to dub him as a wild card for the U.S. Open. He could flame out in the first round or march all the way to the final weekend. The range of possibility seems endless, given his health, the draw and his X-factors. Nobody knows how he will perform.
Except that Nadal, like an aging Jimmy Connors in 1991, is capable of generating fireworks at New York. He has the tools and the fire to captivate, intimidate and fascinate. If he is pumping his fist and shouting enthusiastically with Uncle Toni, the crowds will back him in a New York minute.
What opponent not named Nikolay or Novak would want to play Nadal? It would be like holding back a tsunami or an ancient Jovian spirit. He might recede and drift quietly into the air or rage and conquer the whole Earth.
Don’t build your house on a volcano and don't count out Nadal. You may not sleep too well.