U.S. Open 2010: Why Rafael Nadal Won't Win His Third Straight Major
He’s currently the best player in the world.
He has won two Grand Slams in succession this year: the French Open and Wimbledon.
He’s the first man to win the clay Slam: three Masters and the French title back to back.
He’s won more ATP titles this year than anyone else—five of them.
He guaranteed his place at the World Tour finals weeks ago.
He leads the tour by more than 3,500 points and cannot lose his No. 1 ranking—no matter what happens in New York this month.
He is the force of nature that is Rafael Nadal, and he is aiming to become the seventh man to complete a career Slam by winning this year’s U.S. Open title. At just 24 years of age, he would be the youngest man to do so.
The record is extraordinary, made even more so by having achieved so much during the heyday of a second giant of the game. Nadal and Roger Federer have contested 20 of the last 22 Grand Slam titles.
The Nadal dominance this year is reason enough to think he can indeed win his third straight major, the only one that has eluded him.
Yet he is not everyone’s favorite to win the final Slam of the year.
The reasons why start with—what else?
The Infamous Knees
Mention Nadal’s records, and what he might yet achieve in tennis, and the conversation will inevitably turn to his knees.
A little over a year ago, Nadal was on the sidelines of Wimbledon, nursing the most severe tendinitis he’d suffered in his knee-blighted career. This time, it required three months away from tennis, intensive rehabilitation, and an eventual return to the U.S. Open Series.
Gone were the knee supports, and gone was some of the muscle that had powered his game. This was a slighter, lighter Nadal, with a few changes to his game designed, it seemed, to keep his matches shorter and faster.
Where in previous years he’d run out of steam in the late North American swing, this time he gradually improved on his way to Flushing. His campaign, though, was hindered not by his knees but by a torn abdominal.
He was clearly not out of the woods with his knees, either. After a poor performance at the World Tour Finals, Nadal was forced to retire from his quarterfinal match in Australia this year.
It meant another break from the tour for more rehab, but once more he came back strong to reach the semis of Miami and Indian Wells.
The clay season was Nadal’s from start to finish. Then on the grass of Queens, he picked up a thigh strain, and during his first week at Wimbledon, he faced two long five-setters in the first week that required a number of court-side treatments.
The thigh strapping went on, and so did Nadal, all the way to the title.
So where does he stand now? He has taken a long rest-and-recuperation break through July, and there were no obvious movement difficulties and nor any sign of strapping in Toronto.
Perhaps all is now well. But the one place that will search out weakness—if there is one—is Flushing Meadows.
The Top Quarter
There are some dark horses in the Nadal quarter of the draw who have the wherewithal to cause an upset before Nadal even reaches his designated final-four slot.
Denis Istomin, in the second round, comes to New York with a final placing in New Haven and on his highest ever ranking. He pushed Nadal through a tight three-setter in Queens this summer, too.
Next for Nadal could be Gilles Simon—working his way back from injury and a much better player than his current No. 42 ranking.
An alternative to Simon is the equally dangerous Philipp Kohlschreiber, who took the first set from Nadal in Toronto and thoroughly outplayed him until midway through the second set.
In the next segment is the winner of New Haven last week, Sergiy Stakhovsky. The tall Ukrainian won on grass in June, too. Also enjoying a career high just two spots outside the U.S. Open rankings, he is dangerous floater.
None of these men is likely to beat Nadal, but they are all capable of making him work very hard through some long matches, and that won’t do the knees a whole lot of favors.
Nadal will not fear the two compatriots who lurk in his quarter, either: His head to head against both David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco is intimidating.
But one man who is not intimidated by Nadal could well take Verdasco out of the tournament anyway.
The Argentine is enjoying a great return to form after numerous breaks with injury, including major hip surgery. He comes into New York lying fifth in the U.S. Open Series as a result of winning in Washington and reaching the quarterfinals in Toronto.
Nalbandian has a good chance of taking out a flailing Verdasco in the third round, and his likely quarterfinal opponent will be Ferrer.
Thereafter, he will target Nadal with some enthusiasm: He has scored straight sets wins over Nadal on indoor hard courts.
The Argentine’s wide angled shots to both wings seem able to break down the Nadal top-spin assault, and he can take time away from the Spaniard with short, deft shots at the net and with low cross-court slices.
Nalbandian took the first set from Nadal in Miami in only his seventh match in over a year. He’s now fitter and more confident. If he’s on a tear, he could pose a serious problem.
Again, he may not win, but he could punish the Nadal body.
The Flushing Meadows Conditions
The unforgiving surface of the Flushing courts have often wreaked havoc on Nadal: no room here for slipping and sliding, and no absorption of the high impact game that Nadal plays.
But the speed of the courts and the balls also work against the Nadal game and in favor of the early strikers of the ball, the flat hitters, the subtle volleyers.
Nadal likes to take the ball high, develop a rhythm, and pin his opponent back. He was unable to do so in the semis last year against the eventual winner, Juan Martin del Potro, nor against Murray the year before. On both occasions, he also conceded sets during the earlier rounds.
In fairness, Nadal has usually carried a lot of matches in his legs by the time he’s reached the U.S. Open. This year, forced to listen to his body more carefully than ever before, he has moderated his schedule and that will undoubtedly help him in his campaign to reach his first final on Arthur Ashe.
Even so, he has looked less than convincing on the hard and fast surfaces of North America. His performances have lacked consistency and his shot-making has been less penetrating and pacey than the games of the men who have beaten him: Marcos Baghdatis in Cincinnati and Murray in Toronto. Indeed, Kohlschreiber and Julien Benneteau also looked a step quicker in the first halves of their matches against Nadal.
And Flushing poses the biggest physical challenge of them all.
The Murray Factor
Nadal has a history of bumping into Andy Murray in Grand Slams. He also has a history of finding these encounters very tough.
In their two Wimbledon matches, Nadal has come out on top. But on hard courts, it’s a very different story. As far back as 2007, at the Australian Open, Murray had a two sets to one lead before Nadal pulled out the win.
In 2008, Murray beat Nadal in the semis of the U.S. Open in four sets. More recently, at this year’s Australian Open, Murray again dominated a Nadal who was increasingly hampered by knee pain.
Murray has the knack of disrupting the rhythm of the Nadal game. He can change pace, change direction, counter the Nadal top spin and, when he’s playing well, he can move him around on a piece of sting. And he has been playing particularly well.
He reached the final of his first tournament since Wimbledon—Los Angeles—and then took the Toronto Masters title. Of particular significance was his impressive win over Nadal at Toronto, 6-3, 6-4.
And it’s Murray that Nadal is likely to face when it comes to semi-finals day in New York.
Murray loves this tournament more than any other, and after his loss to Federer in 2008—and more recently in the Australian final—he looks primed to take his revenge.
That will require another hard-court victory over Nadal, and he has the game, motivation, and belief to do just that.
The Tour Schedule
The Nadal schedule is very top-heavy because of his outstanding success on clay. He may have opted out of Barcelona this year in a nod to cutting down his court time, but he won back-to-back titles in Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, and Paris.
He went direct from Roland Garros to Queens where he played three matches before his seven-match, title-winning run at Wimbledon.
Indeed between mid-March and early April, he also played 10 matches in the hard-court Masters—four of them long three-setters—before the clay season even got under way.
He is, in some ways, the victim of his own success. He has played fewer tournaments than any of the men in the top eight except for Murray, yet he’s played more matches than any of them: 59. Federer has played 49, Djokovic 50, Murray 44, Soderling 50, and Davydenko 33. Only Verdasco and Tomas Berdych have reached the 50s but still fall short of Nadal.
So it’s little wonder he took a break between Wimbledon and Toronto. Nadal, however, finds the transition to hard courts difficult and could, paradoxically, do with more court-time to make adjustments in his style of play.
As he builds up rhythm, his confidence grows, but those qualities seemed to be in relatively short supply in Cincinnati and Toronto. It’s a very difficult balance.
The Tournament Schedule
In the end, Nadal may be brought to a halt by the unique schedule of the tournament itself. His half of the draw has begun playing on the second day of the cycle (Federer’s half began on opening day).
The quarterfinals are held on the second Wednesday and Thursday, and the chances are he will have to play Thursday.
There is a day’s break—barring rain—and then the semi-finals and the finals are played on back-to-back days. The men playing the second semi may have less than 18 hours before the final.
In total, then, half the draw will have to play three best-of-five-setters in four days.
The physicality of Nadal’s game, his mental intensity, and the arduous court conditions make this an additional disadvantage for Nadal.
He has to pace himself very carefully from day one if he is to reach final Sunday with any reserves in the tank.
The Final Frontier
If the draw pans out well, if the schedule is kind, if the knees stay strong, if Nadal plays himself into a rhythm and adjusts well to the court speed, and if—after all that—he gets the better of Murray, Nadal has one more mountain to climb.
It could be Robin Soderling, or Novak Djokovic or Andy Roddick—all formidable on hard courts. It will, probably, be Federer.
The Swiss is the man with a 40-match streak at Flushing until Del Potro’s win last year. He’s the man going for a record sixth U.S. title. He’s the man who won the last hard-court Masters before Flushing and reached the final of the one before.
As if his record in New York was not good enough, he’s changing his game to suit it even better. His attack is faster, his game more net-focused, his stance more aggressive.
The two men have gone more than five years without facing each other in America, and that is largely down to Nadal, who has failed to reach the final of a U.S. tournament 22 times. And that’s partly because, despite a decent record on medium-paced hard courts, he gets beaten off the fast surfaces by bigger hitters such as Djokovic and Del Potro.
So even if Federer gets beaten to the U.S. final by Djokovic or Soderling, the problem for Nadal remains the same.
But If Anyone Can Overcome Obstacles, It’s Nadal
To return to the beginning, Nadal is the best player in the world. And what his physical trials and tribulations have done is make him, if anything, a better player.
As good as Nadal was in becoming world No. 1 in 2008, he has continued to improve. His serve is stronger and more looping, his net game is more effective, and he has mastered the sliced backhand. In his opening match in New York, for example, his service was never broken and he delivered a couple of 130 mph bullets.
What’s more, the fitness and power of the Nadal physique, and his aggressive and focused mindset, are unparalleled in the modern game.
Because the thing with Nadal is, he is eager to adjust, to mend his weaknesses, and work ever harder. And he’s lately recognized that he needs to conserve his energy while he plays himself into form.
So those tricky players in the top quarter could be just what Nadal needs.
Nadal may need a couple of lucky breaks along the way, too. The exit of Ernests Gulbis in the first round won’t hurt, nor will the defeat of No. 15 seed Ivan Ljubicic.
Even more useful, further down the line, is the fall of Tomas Berdych, who threatened to be a worrying back-up if Murray’s progress was stopped.
Perhaps this is shaping up to be Nadal’s year after all.