With a beefed-up serve, Rafael Nadal's chances of winning the U.S. Open are definitely better than ever.
Rafael Nadal doesn't want to talk about it, but it is something that has to be seeping into his consciousness. After two sparkling, albeit hard fought matches on Arthur Ashe, it is apparent that the time might very well be now for the 24-year-old Spaniard to capture the coveted career Grand Slam.
He sure as hell plays like someone who wants it badly, but in his pressers he's decidedly nonchalant about the feat that many tennis aficionados consider to be a measure of supreme greatness. "Seriously, for me, complete the Grand Slam at this moment is not a goal," he told the press after last night's straight set victory over Denis Istomin. "For me the goal is try to improve my level, to play well the next match," he added. "For me it is not an obsession and is not a real goal."
Even as Rafa downplays the importance of the achievement, it's clear that Rafa is playing the U.S. Open with more confidence than he's ever had before. He's healthy, and that is probably the most important factor of all, but he's also beefed-up his serve, which had been a comparative liability in year's past.
Rafa's serve topped out at 134 last night, and that's three M.P.H. higher than his first round high of 131 against Teymuraz Gabashvili. It's never been about pace with Rafa, but if you do the math, and factor in the surface, Rafa's growth in that department will take away time from his opponents and help him to generate more free points.
It's working so far, as Nadal has faced eight break points in his first two matches, and stared each and every one of them down.
"I started to serve well one or two days before the competition," said Nadal. "I changed a little bit the grip, like five or six days ago, because I felt when I played against the wind I didn't have free points."
With a big time first serve to complement his world class ground game, Nadal's potential opponents can't be blamed for feeling a little less anxious about playing him on the lightning fast New York hard courts.
"For the moment It's (the serve) working really well," said Nadal, "so I am going to try to keep playing like this. And, sure, to serve like this is a big confidence on my game."
Confidence is something that Rafa hasn't had on hard courts, especially in New York, for the last few years. He's managed to get through to the semifinals in each of the last two years, but he did so while not playing his best tennis, and with nagging injuries keeping him from trusting his body during the grueling second week of the Open, when scheduling issues can force players into matches on consecutive days.
Now that he's confident, serving bombs, and timing the ball exceptionally well, it's hard not to imagine Nadal putting up his best ever U.S. Open performance. Whether or not it'll be enough to get him the title is another story. Cement is also the best surface of the two players he'll likely have to go through to capture a third consecutive slam title: Andy Murray and Roger Federer.
How does he feel about the possibility of winning three straight slams?
"Doesn't matter if it's straight or not straight for me," he said. "Just if any day I have the chance to win here, it would be a dream."