Don't look now, but the King of Clay has been better on hard courts than the red stuff this year, and it is all going to culminate with Rafael Nadal winning his second U.S. Open.
Nadal is a mind-boggling 53-3 in singles play this year. While his winning percentage on all surfaces is magnificent, his 16-0 mark on hard court is his only unblemished surface. On clay, Nadal is 38-2 for the year.
Still, the difference in his dominance between the hard court and clay is splitting hairs, and I don't intend to get into that debate. The tournament at hand is a more pressing matter, and that is where I am convinced Nadal will come out on top.
All of this is a remarkable development that would have been impossible to predict over the course of the past year. This time a year ago, Nadal was watching the U.S. Open with everyone else as his troublesome knees recovered.
At that point, it was fair to wonder if Nadal would ever be the same player—especially on hard courts. However, Nadal quickly put those concerns to rest as he came back to action.
Nadal was absolutely dominant in his return. This came on hard courts and clay. He won the French Open and virtually everything else he entered.
However, those pesky knees caught up to him again, as he looked far less than 100 percent while losing in the first round at Wimbledon. It was then that I wondered if Nadal was soon headed toward another hiatus to rest his aching knees.
However, here he is, once again, looking as good, and perhaps better, than ever.
Since bowing out of Wimbledon, Nadal has played two events. He's won them both. Both have been on hard courts.
He's been so good that even rival Novak Djokovic is singing his hard-court praises. Here is Djokovic as quoted by ESPN's Greg Garber:
He's playing maybe the best tennis that he ever has played on hard courts. He has changed a little bit the game. He stepped in a little bit more. He knows that now he has to be a bit more aggressive than he usually is because of, I guess, his knees.
It's not his favorite surface; it's faster. I'm sure he worked on that and you could see all the work he put in [is] getting results.
Nadal flashed all of this hard-court pedigree in his opening U.S. Open match while taking down American Ryan Harrison, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.
Of course, it is dangerous to put too much stock in any early-round success for top seeds. Still, just look at the way Nadal is moving across the court and it is clear his body is ready to propel him to another title.
Nadal is attacking games and points with a new aggressiveness. Where he previously would have been content to engage in a rally, he is now looking to end points. And he still has the forehand and the game to do just that.
Nadal is sure to get into some big battles before this tournament is all said and done, but there is no opponent playing well enough to topple him.