The Grand Stories: The Summer of Rafa
What are the four major issues in tennis as we approach the fourth and final major of the season? The Grand Stories, written by Steve Tignor and Peter Bodo:
Last week, on his way to the title in Cincinnati, Rafael Nadal was asked what he had done differently on hard courts to help him go undefeated on the surface so far in 2013. He joked that his secret to avoiding defeat had been to play just two tournaments on it so far this year.
On the one hand, Rafa was right; a couple of titles over the course of five months doesn’t make anyone the king of any surface. Nadal has even spent much of the last year talking about how he wishes there were fewer events on hard courts, which he believes do bad things to his already well-worn knees. On the other hand, Nadal knows that these weren’t just any old hard-court events. His victories have come at Indian Wells, Montreal, and Cincinnati, all of them Masters tournaments, all of them stacked with the best competition available. As Rafa said yesterday, these aren’t tune-up tournaments; they’re prestigious titles in their own right.
Nadal has been so good on hard courts, and so good overall in 2013, that he has to be considered a slight favorite for the U.S. Open title. That’s not something many of us thought we’d be saying at the start of the season, or again after his early departure at Wimbledon two months ago. But since then Nadal has become just the fourth player since the 1990s to complete the elusive and fatiguing summer hard-court double. The other three were Andre Agassi in 1995, Patrick Rafter in 1998, and Andy Roddick in 2003. If their history is a guide, Nadal should indeed be the favorite at the Open. Both Roddick and Rafter went on to win at Flushing Meadows, and Agassi would have done the same if he hadn’t run into his version of kryptonite, Pete Sampras, in the final in ’95.
Nadal’s personal history is also on his side. Every year for the last nine years he has dominated the lead-up to the French Open, and every year but one he has capped that run with a title in Paris. Nadal has always been a binge winner, and a momentum player, so much so that he used the positive energy from his clay season to push him all the way to the Wimbledon final, on a different surface, five times in a row starting in 2006.
Still, this is uncharted territory for Rafa. He had never won Cincinnati before; hence his dramatically joyous celebration dive yesterday. And he hadn’t won in Canada since 2008. Even in 2010, the year of his lone U.S. Open title, Nadal kept a fairly low profile at these two tournaments, going out before the finals before shifting into high gear in New York. Just a few months ago, there was speculation that Nadal might skip all hard-court events in the future. With that in mind, his 2013 performance on the surface must feel like a fabulous bonus. It must also feel like an opportunity. The Open is back within his grasp.
What might keep Nadal from grabbing it? There are, obviously, his knees. The last two years he has rolled through the clay season only to pull up lame at Wimbledon. That could happen at the Open as well, though it seems unlikely. There’s also the curse of the U.S. Open Series winner. Nadal was announced as this year’s champion today, but that’s no guarantee of success at the Open itself; if anything it’s the opposite on the men’s side. Only one male player, Federer in 2007, has won the Open and the Open Series. (Not that past Series winners like Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish, and Andy Roddick were exactly heavy favorites to go all the way at Flushing.)
Rafa will also have to deal with the return of another sometime nemesis of his, Toni Nadal. All three of Nadal’s hard-court titles this year have come with his self-described “B-team,” led by his back-up coach Francisco Roig, and without the A-list Uncle Toni. I’ve wondered over the last two weeks whether Rafa hasn’t profited from that change. In Montreal and Cincy, he was more willing to experiment with his return position, and to be more aggressive in general. It seems likely that he feels freer and looser, more upbeat, when he doesn’t have to deal with Toni the taskmaster all the time. I know Rafa is more animated and talkative with Roig on the practice court; the two of them will argue over technique for hours. Maybe that’s helped.
I’m only being half-serious, of course; uncle and nephew are obviously a winning team. Of greater concern for Nadal will be his fellow members of the Big 4, Djokovic, Murray, and Federer, and how many of them the draw sticks in his way. With Federer ranked No. 7, it’s possible that Nadal would have to beat all three to win the title. None of those matches would be easy, let alone three in a row.
Nadal just beat Federer in Cincinnati, but it was close. He also just beat Djokovic in Montreal, but that was even closer—it was decided in a third-set tiebreaker. Despite his razor-thin wins over Novak in Paris and in Canada this year, the Serb remains a special problem for Nadal. And while Djokovic has had his struggles and mood swings lately, hard courts are still his best surface.
More intriguing would be a meeting between Nadal and Murray. They haven’t played since 2011, when Murray won a 6-0 third set in the final in Tokyo. More relevant than that is Murray’s new status as a Wimbledon winner and defending U.S. Open champion. Ironically, it’s Murray who has benefited more than anyone from Nadal’s injuries. In 2011, Rafa beat the Brit in the semifinals at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open (he has a 6-2 record in their head to head at the Slams). In 2012, with Nadal on the sidelines, Murray won the Open and Olympic gold. This summer, Rafa’s early exit at Wimbledon again helped open the door for Murray. What will happen when the two finally meet again at a major? Will Muzz’s new status as a Slam champ translate into a more confident attitude against his old tormentor?
Nadal says that unlike on clay, where he can slide through on a bad day, he has to play his best to win hard-court titles. I liked something else he said, to Pam Shriver, in Montreal last week. When she asked him about his more aggressive play on hard courts this year, he cautioned that he could only do that if he was “feeling the ball well.” In other words, his tactics were determined by his form on that day, not the other way around. How well a player is feeling the ball can change from one afternoon to the next, and chances are there will be at least one day during the Open when Nadal won’t be feeling it well. We’ll see whether his summer momentum carries him through anyway.
Nadal’s Open title in 2010 felt like an all-out effort to make it happen while he had the chance; he knew he wouldn’t have as many opportunities here as he would in Paris. Until these last two weeks, it seemed to me that Rafa was right, that another chance in New York probably wouldn’t come again for him. Now, suddenly, it’s here. We’ll see what he does with it.