Nadal reaches No. 1 the hard way
NEW YORK -- It is wholly appropriate that Rafael Nadal come to this city in his effort to twist one last bit of muscle into the hard headlock he now has on men’s tennis.
New York is a place, after all, where toughness, strength and the ability to bully one’s way through any obstacle are primary points of pride.
Sure, the Spaniard is a wonderful guy; cheery, humble, even sweet -- off the court.
On the court, tennis has never witnessed a bigger, badder tough guy than Rafa Nadal, who goes after his third straight Grand Slam title when the U.S. Open starts its two-week run Monday.
If you’re the average sports fan, you’re thinking: “A tennis player? Tough and rough?”
Did you see Nadal at the All England Club?
He has the well-chiseled look and the speedy, deft feet of an NFL defensive back. In his hands, a tennis racket becomes a cudgel, brutalizing every ball he hits.
There’s the spin, which most observers say he imparts more lethally than anyone in tennis history. A high-speed video study by John Yandell, a San Francisco tennis teaching pro, showed Nadal slaps his forehand around at an average of 3,200 revolutions per minute. Roger Federer’s ball rotates at 2,500 rpm. Andre Agassi generated 1,800 rpm.
There’s the power. Watch him live and up close. Nadal hits so hard that the effect of ball striking strings when he really lays into it creates a percussion you can practically feel through your feet.
But most important is Nadal’s sheer doggedness and determination. He’s the guy in the barroom brawl that is going to keep swinging, no matter what, even if he’s flat on his back.
Think back to his manic determination on the red clay in Paris, where he has never lost and has now won four French Open titles.
Think back to Wimbledon, where, after losing a two-set lead and a match point, the 22-year-old found the will to sneak out a fifth-set theft of King Roger’s crown.
For more than three years he had been lodged at No. 2 in the world, chasing Federer, never giving ground. Finally, after following up Wimbledon with continued spectacular play on the hard courts of the Rogers Cup in Canada, and after winning an Olympic gold medal in Beijing, Nadal begins this U.S. Open ranked No. 1 in the world for the first time.
So, over the next two weeks, is there anyone, or anything, capable of stopping Nadal on the Flushing Meadows hard courts, a surface he has so far never managed to master at the Grand Slam level?
To start with, in a sport where confidence is the most cherished of elixirs, no one enters this tournament with the supreme, I-can-whup-anyone feeling that Nadal now feels.
Not only is he 69-8 this year with eight titles including the French Open and Wimbledon, but he won on the fast grass at Wimbledon, a place many prognosticators felt he’d never have a chance.
Want to add a little pop to the good feeling you’ve got going? Try doing something no one, not even you, ever really imagined you could do. That’s Nadal right now, and these good vibes have shown up in the way he has played after Wimbledon: more than ever before he’s hewing close to the baseline, aggressively taking balls just after the bounce, serving aces and coming to the net to finish points with solid volleys.
Certainly, some potential obstacles exist.
Fatigue: Nadal puts maximum effort into every match and has played a dizzying amount of tennis this year. Now he must also deal with a brutal time change after just wrapping up matters in Beijing.
The conditions: unruly New Yawk fans, jets flying just overhead on their way to nearby LaGuardia Airport, and the weather, which can become swampy hot in the Northeast this time of year.
The courts: Nadal traditionally likes slower courts and higher bounces, which tend to send balls right into his wheelhouse. Here, the courts are faster and the balls bounce lower than on hard courts at most other big tennis tournaments, including the Australian Open, where Nadal was dismantled in this year’s semifinals by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The opponents, though they’re not as tough as some seem to think: Perhaps there are more good male pros than ever, but not more great ones. There simply aren’t many guys with legitimate shots at actually winning the U.S. Open right now.
One man who could do it is Australian champion Novak Djokovic, who beat a tired Nadal in Cincinnati early this month. With his cannon serve, Andy Roddick will always be a factor in New York. Britain’s Andy Murray has the game, but not quite the mind or body just yet.
There are a sparse number of dangerous floaters in the draw. It’s hard to imagine any of them making the final.
And of course, yes, there is also Federer, who is suffering through the most disappointing patch of his glorious career. In 2004, he won three Grand Slams, 11 tournaments in all and lost only six times. This year, he has no slams, two tournament wins and has already lost a dozen times. He has been blown out by a sort-of-somebody named Mardy Fish, barely scraped out a win against a nobody named Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, and looked like a lost schoolboy during the French Open final against Nadal.
To get his groove back in New York, Federer not only must summon the old elixir of utter confidence, he must change his ways against Nadal, who leads their head-to-head battle, 12-6.
Most of Nadal’s wins have been played on his beloved, slow red clay. But even on faster courts, Federer always seems to find a way to play into Nadal’s strengths: tying himself to the baseline, allowing Nadal to find range and rhythm.
Playing passively won’t cut it against Nadal. You don’t dance around at a New York bar fight. You push forward, give the other guy a bloody lip, stun him, take away his ability to unload haymakers.
With few exceptions, when Nadal loses, be it a recent match against Djokovic or the semifinal in Australia, this is exactly what unfolds. The opponent leaps in first, pops Nadal in the noggin, and presses. The points are kept short. The rhythm? None is allowed.
Sure, Nadal will get in his licks. He’ll track down balls and gun winners from positions on the court nobody has ever imagined. But he’ll always feel uncomfortable, always feel under the gun.
If Federer is to meet and beat Nadal in what would arguably be the most anticipated U.S. Open final ever, a bar fight it must be. The elegant Swiss must find a way to morph into a roughhouse hombre, getting his blows in quick and often.
Sorry, Mr. Federer, the house money is on Nadal.
In all likelihood, when this tournament ends on Sept. 7, tennis’ big, bad bully will walk down 42nd Street with the winner’s trophy in his hands and a hard, heavy chokehold on men’s tennis.
He’ll be a perfect, New Yawk champ.
Kurt Streeter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.
When: Monday-Sept. 7
Where: Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, New York
TV: Channel 2, USA Network