It’s no surprise that Rafael Nadal is the center of attention at the 2013 U.S. Open. He has removed many of the doubts about his injuries, time off and ability to play great hard-court tennis. Nadal is elevating his elite legacy with a torrid North American summer streak that ranks among the greatest of all time.
How has the King of Clay managed to put his European championships in storage while he conquers the New World?
Not even the most diehard Nadal fan would have predicted Masters 1000 victories at Indian Wells, Montreal and Cincinnati backed by a spotless 16-0 record on hard courts. Gene Garber even went so far as to attribute Nadal's comeback success to bad knees:
There is method to this madness, and as always the Spanish superstar is reinventing himself to take another leap forward.
Transition from Clay to Cement
In his early years, Nadal was a dynamic retriever who built his success on relentless hustle, iron will and loopy topspin. But what gets lost in his evolution is how he has used his athleticism and hard work to change the way he plays on grass and hard courts.
At Wimbledon, he learned to hit the ball earlier and become more aggressive in hitting winners.
All of this eventually paid off in 2010 when he became the only player in history to win the final three Grand Slam titles, which are played on clay, grass and hard courts. He adjusted to new strings, created a bigger serve and drove forward with conditioning and toughness. Now, he has learned to problem-solve and adapt to adversity.
A few weeks ago against rival Novak Djokovic at Montreal, Nadal showed his willingness to use both sides of the court rather than stubbornly feed the Djokovic backhand with high topspin. He took more chances with a flatter forehand and backhand to the deuce side of the court. Above all, he attacked from closer to the baseline.
Nadal still has his clay-court tendencies to shrink back several meters beyond the baseline as long as he is winning, but he is not following the script he once wrote for early Grand Slam titles. He is persisting, but he's thinking of new ways to win shorter points. It’s paying off big time.
What other athlete or innovator has found comparable success with such a radical overhaul?
In the early 1980s, Apple Inc. ruled a significant chunk of the computer industry but faced decline in an increasingly competitive landscape. After a lull, it took bold steps to change its logo and diversify its products rather than focus solely on computers. It is bigger than ever because it was willing to reinvent its greatness rather than fade away from its past.
Nadal has arguably done this better than all but a handful of historical sports athletes.
Legacy Still Expanding?
Nadal is playing for more than another Grand Slam title. He is shattering the perceptions of those who have typecast him as only a dominant clay-court player. While it’s true that Nadal’s clay-court credentials are indisputably untouchable, he is also a Hall of Fame player even had he never won a clay-court title.
His first-round victory over Ryan Harrison quietly gave him his 293rd career win on hard courts, which is now more than the 292 career wins he has amassed on clay. Of course he has fewer losses on clay (21 losses on clay; 85 losses on hard courts), but the record shows that he plays more on hard courts and will not shy away from competing for titles when he is healthy.
Fourteen hard-court titles is a career in itself.
Nadal has the opportunity to seize the U.S. Open title and wrest the No. 1 ranking from Djokovic, provided his rival does not make it to the final. (Nadal can also claim the No. 1 ranking if he is a finalist and Djokovic loses before the quarterfinals.)
If he is able to complete a two-Slam season, it will rank as one of his three greatest seasons despite not playing in the Australian Open and folding in the first round of Wimbledon.
The lesson is that when Nadal is rolling, he is exceptionally dominant. And he is rolling like never before right now.
Should Nadal continue his sparkling play into the close of the season and capture the 2014 Australian Open title, he would become the only player of the Open Era to accomplish the career Grand Slam twice. It would be another indisputable legacy that would stand alone.
Of course there’s a lot of work to do right now at the U.S. Open.
An upcoming loss could take the steam out of his drive for more history, and Nadal is still cautious about prematurely comparing his 2013 results to those of 2008 and 2010. He said as much on ATP.com:
I had success in the past when I was playing well, too, on hard. Is difficult to analyse now. I am playing well. [Did I play] better in Cincinnati and Montreal than what I played in the Olympics in 2008? I don’t think so. I don’t know. Or I played better than when I won here in 2010? I don’t know.
Nadal is incredibly focused on winning tennis matches, so any possible letdown will not occur by reading his own press. For now, he is preparing one match at a time.
But the way Nadal is playing deserves attention from those who look for new forms of tennis greatness. His legacy continues to probe into the outer limits.