Rafael Nadal is currently the #1 player in men’s tennis, an achievement he also held in 2008, but until very recently he has never been the #1 player in people’s minds. That distinction used to belong to Roger Federer. However, after a couple of years of inconsistent tennis, despite a strong hardcourt summer, doubts are beginning to rise about the continuation of Federer’s reign.
Meanwhile, Nadal is fitter, hungrier, and more focused than ever before, and this time the reigning French Open and Wimbledon champ has the necessary puzzle pieces to claim his one elusive Slam, the U.S. Open.
Here are ten reasons why Nadal is the Open favorite for the first time, and why he may have surpassed Federer for good.
For the past 5 years, only Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer has held the #1 ranking in men’s tennis. While Federer has claimed the top spot for most of this time period, Rafa was able to reach the summit for the first time in June 2008, keeping the #1 spot until Federer reclaimed it in July 2009.
This year, Nadal reclaimed the top spot for the second time after winning the French Open, while Federer has slipped as low as #3 this summer. Nadal and Federer go into the US Open as the #1 and #2 seeds respectively, and unless Federer can take the title, Nadal should close out the season as #1, with the potential to remain there much longer.
Not only is Rafa currently #1, but he is clearly playing show-stopping tennis, when he is actually playing. While he’s taken a lot of time off to rest this year, the times he has shown up on court, he’s been in top form. In all tournaments he has appeared in 2010, he has at least made it to the semi-final in every one. Among these appearances are two Slam victories.
Meanwhile, though Federer took the Australian Open, his subsequent Slam appearances have resulted in quarterfinal exits. If he keeps up this trend, only one of the two will still be around for Super Saturday, and it’ll be Nadal.
Federer’s advantage has always been his dominant game no matter what the surface. But now Nadal, known formerly as a clay court specialist, has become a triple-threat on grass and hardcourts as well.
For example, after failing to make it past the second round of his first Wimbledon in 2005, Nadal has made 4 finals appearances and collected 2 wins in each of the subsequent years, minus an absence due to injury in 2009.
In the US Open, he’s made the semifinals each of the past 2 years, after failing to make it past the 4th round before 2008. And he won gold on hardcourt at the 2008 Olympics and captured the 2009 Australian Open, his first hardcourt slam.
Now he just has to get that other hardcourt monkey off his back: the US Open.
Even if Nadal has to face Federer in this US Open final, he has the confidence to win. Despite Nadal’s current upperhand, keep in mind that it is not as if suddenly Nadal’s game has improved over Federer. Rafa has always been Roger’s kryptonite.
He is the only player on tour to have a winning record against Federer, and he had to beat Federer to claim his first six Slam titles.
Federer will continue to be a formidable force against every other player on tour, but Nadal already knows he can beat the best, and that he has beaten Federer at his best. Now that Rafa is currently the better player, that puts his game that much further ahead of Federer’s.
Rafa currently holds 8 Grand Slam titles, as compared to the 6 that Federer achieved by that age. Nadal currently has 41 total titles, also more than Federer’s 33 titles at age 24.
This has been a trend for a number of years. For every yearly milestone Federer set, Nadal surpassed at that age. While Federer won his first Slam at 22, Nadal already had 5 Grand Slams at that age. Federer won his first title at age 20, while Nadal had claimed 17 wins by then.
Agassi is the only player since Rod Laver to claim a Slam title over 29. While Federer is still very much at the top of his game at age 29, history says he’ll slow down soon, giving Nadal at least 5 years to catch, and likely surpass him.
To catch Federer’s current totals, Nadal needs to claim 8 Grand Slams and 22 total titles over the next five years, which he could do easily by only equaling his own success over the past 5 years. But it’s clear by how he has upped his game in the past year alone that Rafa’s not going to settle for that, beginning with the US Open title.
Nadal has also won 5 of their 7 matchups in Grand Slam finals. This number is important, because even with Roger playing dominant tennis for much of the last decade, Rafa has the upper-hand in head-to-head meetings. And, if it is true that Nadal is peaking and Roger could be facing a slower 30s, the advantage should remain in Nadal’s favor.
And they have only met once in the last 14 months. Assuming the frequency of their meetings has slowed down, Fed is only getting older. Even if Roger wins the next 7 meetings between the two, it only evens the series at 14 apiece.
During a press conference at the Farmers Classic in LA, reporters asked Nadal’s countryman Feliciano Lopez about the best aspect of Nadal’s game, the one that makes him so unstoppable. Lopez responded first by simply pointing to his head: “I think Rafa has the best mentality in all of sports.”
In the surface, this response may have seemed a cop out, but Lopez has a point. At the very top of this game, when Nadal’s and Federer’s physical presence are equally formidiable on any given day, it takes more than tennis skill to lift one above the rest. Right now, Nadal has the mental focus and the championship mentality, especially going into this last major of the season.
To be fair, Federer has historically remained cool and collected in discussions about his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal. In 2008, when Nadal surpassed him in the rankings for the first time, Roger diplomatically said, “Look at what he had to achieve to get it. That's what I like to see,” essentially a compliment to himself.
This year, Federer seems to feel Nadal beginning to overpower him as a rival. In Cincinnati, Federer noted “[Nadal] still maybe struggles a little bit on the faster hardcourts.” Several days later, he used a similar putdown: “Maybe US Open is a bit faster, so you figure Rafa will struggle a bit more.”
Perhaps Federer recognizes Nadal has the mental, if not also the physical, edge, and is trying to pull a bit of a jedi mindtrick on his challenger. Unfortunately, Rafa has already called his bluff, saying the US Open speed is nothing compared with the fast grass of Wimbledon.
Going into the US Open, Nadal seems to be the fan favorite, for once. Federer has historically been the darling of the New York crowd (other than the Americans of course), and the US Open has always been been Federer’s tournament to lose—which of course he did last year, to del Potro. That loss made fans realize Federer is human (if they didn’t before). While this is perfectly acceptable, the US Open is a Slam where fans notoriously cheer for one of two things: a superstar or an underdog.
Right now, despite Federer’s successful hardcourt summer, Nadal is both the superstar (having most recently won the French Open and Wimbledon) and the underdog (having never won a US Open title). From a fan perspective, that’s tough to beat. All the players know how hard it is to fight not only your opponent, but the rowdy New York crowd.