Rafael Nadal has the No. 1 ranking, good health and a will to win that may be unmatched in men’s tennis.
The Spaniard also has an uncharacteristic history of early exits at the U.S. Open, the only major event whose title has eluded him. With more going for him than against him as the tournament’s Monday start approaches, many feel this is the year for the 24-year-old Nadal to finally break through in Flushing and complete the career Grand Slam.
Rival Roger Federer, a five-time U.S. Open champion, has looked vulnerable in recent finals. And while Federer is the betting favorite with 5-2 odds, Nadal shares 3-1 odds with his only other major foil, Andy Murray.
Nadal’s agent, Carlos Costa, acknowledged Thursday the growing expectations on his client, whose French Open and Wimbledon double this summer (his second such feat) made him an eight-time Grand Slam winner.
“After his results at the Grand Slams this year, Rafa arrives in New York as the No. 1 player and the player to beat,” Costa wrote in an e-mail. “Having said that, Rafa has not had the best U.S. summer swing, proving as always that in tennis and sports, anything can happen.”
In his two hardcourt events since Wimbledon, Nadal looked out of sync, bowing in the Toronto semifinals and the Cincinnati quarters. Likewise, during his seven Flushing flameouts since his first U.S. Open, in 2003, he has looked bedraggled at the year’s final Grand Slam, where fans have never seen Nadal at his relentless best.
That trend may end this year.
“Rafa is healthy, happy, feeling well and practicing hard,” Costa said. “All that together with his mental toughness and his will to win all four Slams is a good combination to see him achieve one of his dreams of winning the U.S. Open. That it’s all taking place in New York makes it very special.”
A reduced schedule this season has ensured that previously chronic knee and abdominal ailments no longer bedevil Nadal.
“He really feels like he’s got to strike now,” said tennischannel.com columnist Steve Flink. “He’s very aware of timing and history and all of that. ... This time I think he really is priming for it.”
And, as Scoop Malinowski of tennis-prose.com pointed out, injuries to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro removed two players who have beaten Nadal decisively in past hardcourt majors.
“To count him out to win a U.S. Open or any tournament would be a mistake,” said Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Connors, a five-time U.S. Open champion. “In my opinion, he hasn’t even reached his prime yet, so that’s kind of a scary thought.”