Rafael Nadal's Unrivaled Hard-Court Success Makes Him Favorite to Win U.S. Open
It's amazing how much can change in two months time.
Even though the 12-time Grand Slam champion had just stamped his name across the clay-court season just two weeks earlier, capping off his run through Europe with an eighth French Open crown, his alarming defeat at the All England Club transformed the conversation from "Can anyone beat him?" to "Will he be back?"
But after more than a month away from tennis this summer, Nadal has returned better than ever, winning back-to-back ATP Masters 1000 events in Montreal and Cincinnati to cement himself as the men's favorite heading into this summer's 2013 U.S. Open.
If you're wary of Nadal's chances in New York City, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn't be.
He's Done it Before
A champion only once at Flushing Meadows in 2010, Nadal has struggled at the season's final Slam more so than at any of the other three majors, winning just over 80 percent of his career singles matches there (34-8).
But those numbers are a bit misleading considering Nadal has reached the men's final in each of his past two trips to New York, winning it all in his first run to the final three years ago.
Prior to those successes, Rafa reached the semifinals in back-to-back years in 2008 and 2009. So it wouldn't be a shock if Nadal cruised into the final again.
Despite missing last year's U.S. Open, Nadal has won 13 of his last 14 matches at Flushing Meadows and is clearly comfortable playing there. Therefore he must be considered the favorite to lift the title for a second time this summer.
Still doubt Nadal at a major outside of Paris?
While it's fair to point out that Rafa hasn't won a Grand Slam anywhere other then Roland Garros since 2010, there isn't a hotter player on the planet than the 27-year-old Spaniard heading into the year's final major.
Which player has been the most impressive on hard courts in 2013?
He's won 10 straight matches since returning from his Wimbledon upset, and is 15-0 on hard courts in 2013, having defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic once and Roger Federer twice on his least favorite surface.
Those victories over big-time rivals have to give Nadal loads of confidence heading into the U.S. Open. Outlasting Djokovic in an epic five-setter at Roland Garros is one thing, but beating him on his preferred surface in Montreal has to boost Rafa's morale.
Overall, Nadal's hard-court dominance has been highlighted by consistency. He's dropped plenty of points, games and sets this summer, but match after match he's found a way to win, and that's what it takes to survive two weeks at a Grand Slam.
Nadal's brilliance in Montreal and Cincinnati has elevated him from fifth to second in the ATP world rankings, meaning he will be seeded No. 2 in the men's draw at the U.S. Open this summer, opposite of 2011 champion and current world No. 1 Djokovic, per BBC Sport on Twitter:
Andy Murray will defend his US Open title as third seed, having been replaced as world number 2 by Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer seeded seven— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) August 19, 2013
The two wouldn't meet until the final in that case, setting up the potential for an epic rematch of the 2010 and 2011 finals inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Depending on the draw, Nadal could also avoid the reigning U.S. Open champion, world No. 3 Andy Murray. If Murray and Djokovic wind up on the same side, Nadal would have the advantage of taking on the survivor of that clash two days later for the championship.
Taking Rafa's favorable seeding into account, and given his unrivaled level of play on the hard courts this season (15-0 with three titles), he must be the hands-down favorite to conquer Flushing Meadows in 2013.
Follow Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Patrick Clarke on Twitter.
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