Rafael Nadal’s New York state of mind can be summed up in one word: Unsettled.
The much-loved Spanish star has always said the right things, the polite things, the nice things, about his experiences in New York City. But while the U.S. Open has certainly provided Nadal with some spectacular highs, including two championship runs, it has also brutalized him with some searing lows. Just which one he’ll experience this year is one of the most tantalizing questions looming as the tournament approaches.
Nadal was off the tour for over two months following his withdrawal from the French Open with a left wrist injury in late May. He may have taken on an over-sized workload when he returned at the recent Olympic games, competing in singles and doubles (and with the intention of playing mixed doubles) over the cramped course of nine days. The 30-year old King of Clay (and Prince of Grass and Pauper of Indoor Hard Courts) left Rio with a gold in doubles, and he played unsuccessfully for the bronze singles medal.
Nadal’s long absence from the tour, the emotional toll of Olympic competition and his success combined to ensure that Rio was a draining experience. Yet he went immediately to play at the Cincinnati Masters, where he lost in the third round to Borna Coric.
“I think I need to recover emotionally, physically,” Nadal said, “and especially, I need to give some rest to the wrist, the arm, to everything.”
His comments make you wonder why he didn’t just go home, or pull out of Cincinnati, after the Olympic Games. The reason is simple. He wants to maximize his chances at the U.S. Open. And that’s a roll of the die.
The final major of the year is the tournament Nadal has most impressively if fitfully mastered. In his old age, he may remember it as the major where he worked hardest and most successfully to overcome his liabilities and fears. It was the last of the majors to fall to his bolo-slinging forehands and lung-bursting baseline runs. It is where he completed his career Grand Slam, in 2010.
Nadal was able to become a dominant force in New York for many years in spite of his natural affinity for clay, his typically front-loaded schedule and the frustrations he experienced at the Open early in his career. In his first two years in Flushing Meadows, Nadal lost to higher-ranked players. But due largely to his success at the French Open, Nadal already had rocketed to No. 2 in the world by the time he played his third U.S. Open in 2005, at the age of 19.
Nadal played Americans in three consecutive matches that year, losing to 49th-ranked James Blake. The next two years were hardly better: losses to Mikhail Youzhny and fellow countryman and friend David Ferrer, in the quarterfinals and fourth round, respectively. Neither of them was a Top 10 player at the time.
By 2008, Nadal was the top-ranked player in the world, coming off a dominant French Open and a career-altering win at Wimbledon over Roger Federer. But he lost in the semis of the U.S. Open to eventual runner-up Andy Murray. The surprises kept coming, the first of them a nasty one. In 2009, torn abdominal muscles hampered Nadal in the semifinals, opening the door for Juan Martin del Potro to win and go on to claim his first Grand Slam title.
Nadal finally punched through in 2010, with a four-set win over Novak Djokovic. Afterward, he summed up his feelings with the comment: "It's more than what I dreamt.”
Since then, the U.S. Open has been Nadals’ fiefdom, but it’s also where he’s labored like a serf in vain. He has both shined on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium and flamed out. Nadal’s triumph over Djokovic in the 2013 final is among his finest and most rousing performances; his five-set loss to Fabio Fognini last year, in which he led by two sets, is one of his most dismal.
Nadal is 2-1 in finals at the US Open, and with the exception of last year, has been to the semifinals or better every year he’s been able to play since 2007. But he has played the Open just twice in the past four years. Nadal missed it in 2014 because of a right wrist injury, and in 2012 because of knee tendinitis. In between, he won the whole thing.
Nadal is now in the late phase of his career. He’s struggling with injuries. He’s reeling and trying to recover his equilibrium after a horrific tango with anxiety. Yet he remains just three Grand Slam titles behind Roger Federer, who has 17. Every one is precious.
The numbers say that as far as Nadal and the U.S. Open go, anything can happen. Small wonder he chose to go from Rio to Cincinnati to get a few more matches before the Grand Slam finale.
“I need to keep practicing, to keep playing,” Nadal said in Cincinnati, looking ahead to the American major.
Nadal knows what it takes to win the U.S. Open, and he knows what the U.S. Open can do to the poorly prepared. He’s fit, pointing out that his Olympic schedule of singles and doubles was like playing a daily best-of-five singles match. The wrist is a question mark—a scary one.
“The wrist is still the same,” Nadal said. “With more rest, the wrist will not go better. The wrist needs to adapt again to the game; needs to adapt again to hit the ball.”
You could almost substitute the word “risk” for “wrist” in the first two sentences of Nadal’s quote and get a pretty good of where he stands going into this year's U.S. Open, compared to the recent past. His New York state of the mind once again is unsettled.