Rafael Nadal is the reigning king of clay and grass. But can he rule the cement and have his day in New York?
Rafa's No. 1 in the world, but there is no denying the fact that he's not the same player on hardcourts than he is on grass and clay. This is not a knock, but it is a reality that must be taken into account when handicapping the U.S. Open.
Unless, that is, you believe that numbers lie.
Rafa went 22-0 on clay and 9-1 on grass courts over the spring, but in 27 matches on the hard stuff, he only managed a 21-6 clip. His last hardcourt title came in Indian Wells in 2009 (and only 9 of his 41 career titles have come on cement). It's plain as day that Rafa is still searching for that magic that so naturally flows from him on the other surfaces - and his recent efforts in Toronto and Cincinnati are further proof that he has yet to find it.
Now, 21-6 is hardly anything to scoff at, nor are his semifinal appearances in Indian Wells, Miami, and Toronto, but the fact that Rafa is basically winning three out of every four matches on the hard stuff doesn't exactly portend a breezy two weeks for the king of clay. Yes, he's got world-class heart, guile, strokes, and fitness - pretty much everything that you measure a tennis player by - but for some reason, Nadal isn't quite the same on the hard courts.
That being said, the belief does exist that nobody is better in a big match environment (no matter the surface), and that Rafa will find a way to will himself over the finish line provided that he is able to maintain his health.
I think it's plausible that Rafa, having suffered the heartbreak of two consecutive semifinal drubbings in New York, will be more prepared to fight for the last piece of the coveted career Grand Slam harder than he ever has before. And this fight - the classic Nadal pugnacity - coupled with Rafa's uncanny ability to stand on a precipice facing elimination and to swing with all his might, might make the difference this year.
One things for certain. To see Nadal and Federer clash in the final would be as special an event as the U.S. Open could hope for. It would be great for so many reasons and on so many levels. It would be a boon for the sport, and I think it goes without saying that it would be one of the most compelling chapters in the book of Roger and Rafa when all was said and done, because no way in hell would these two champions send the fans home without giving them their money's worth. Well, I mean it's happened before ( a particular French Open final comes to mind where Federer managed only four games), but the odds of it happening now are slim to none. Call it a premonition.
Here's hoping that Rafa raises his hardcourt game and shows the world that he can conquer New York. He doesn't have to win to do so, but he does have to improve upon what he's done in the past.
I don't think it's too much to ask, and I doubt that he does either.