US Open 2017 - Crunch time for Nadal in Big Apple
From the smiling, laid-back figure he cut alongside Roger Federer during the traditional Kids' Day ahead of the tournament, it was briefly possible to forget just how much is at stake for Rafael Nadal at this year's US Open. Having returned to world No.1 on 21 August, the Spaniard – who gets his campaign underway against Serbia's Dusan Lajovic on Tuesday, in the day's third match on Arthur Ashe (at around 20:30 French time) – is the top seed at the season's last Grand Slam for the first time since 2010 and enters the tournament knowing that he has plenty to gain… and to lose.
'Rafa' long ago demonstrated that he is no mere dirt-baller, with Exhibit A being the 20 titles (including five Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal) he has won on hard court and grass. If he can show as much again in New York, it could yet prove pivotal. With five of the eight 2016 ATP World Tour Finals participants missing (Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori), this represents a golden opportunity for the Spaniard to lay down a marker and pull away from his closest pursuers, particularly one Roger Federer.
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The 36-year-old has conquered two of the year's three Grand Slams to date and although he is two spots adrift in the rankings (the Swiss sits third, on 7,145 points, compared to the Majorcan's 7,645), the 19-time major winner is breathing down Nadal's neck in the Race to London, with a measly 220 points between them (7,145 to 7,365). A shift in the balance of power between the distinguished duo, who are on a semi-final collision course at Flushing Meadows, could be decisive in the battle for the much-coveted year-end No.1 crown. Indeed, in all three years in which Nadal has ended the season top of the pile (in 2008, 2010 and 2013), he won in his Parisian playground and claimed at least one other Slam: Wimbledon in 2008, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2010, and the US Open again in 2013. Repeat the feat and he will be firmly in the driving seat.
Despite rediscovering his mojo over the course of 2017 and capturing the imagination in the process, Nadal has not had it all his own way this year. Up a break in the fifth set in the Australian Open final in January, he failed to add to his 2009 title in Melbourne, proving powerless to prevent Federer from pulling off a pulsating comeback. This is one of three finals that 'Rafa' has reached and lost (the others came in Miami and Acapulco) on hard courts in 2017; however, though he has played some fine stuff on the cement, his highlights have once more centred on the red dust, with an all-conquering clay swing crowned by his 'La Decima'-clinching victory at Roland-Garros after wins in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.
Toni Nadal:"It's been nothing like his matches in Montreal and Cincinnati. He's really feeling the ball"
Since then, the Spaniard's fortunes have dipped somewhat. First, the man who hasn't lifted a trophy beyond clay since triumphing on the grass of Stuttgart in 2015, and whose last hard-court title came in Doha in early 2014, was dumped out by Gilles Muller in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. He followed that up by falling to rising Canadian star Denis Shapovalov at the same stage in Montreal, which he described as his "worst loss of the year", and was then put to the sword by Nick Kyrgios in the Cincinnati quarter-finals.
Yet these two defeats to freewheeling youngsters (during a North American swing that, incidentally, has seen next generation poster boy Alexander Zverev reassert his credentials with victory in Quebec and eternal prospect Grigor Dimitrov seemingly come of age in Ohio) have not been enough to dampen the optimism of Uncle Toni, who sounded an upbeat note on the eve of his nephew's New York opener: "I think Rafael is going into the tournament in strong shape," he told Eurosport. "I've seen him in practice throughout the last week and he's looked really good. It's been nothing like his matches in Montreal and Cincinnati. He's really feeling the ball."
2013 US Open champion
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Now all that remains is for the 31-year-old to transfer this form from the practice court to the real thing, as he embarks on his quest for a third US Open title. Succeed in this mission and he will not only take his Grand Slam tally to 16, but also pocket 2,000 points that could come mightily in handy. After all, the Spaniard currently has the lowest points total of any freshly crowned No.1 since 2009, when the current ranking system was brought in, and he would surely love to strengthen that position ahead of the end-of-season indoor events, so that his top billing is not in peril during the stretch of the year in which he has typically laboured.
A serving of glory in the Big Apple would also ensure that he boasts the best Grand Slam record on tour this year, ahead of Federer, and thereby avoid any possible reruns of the hullabaloo in 2013, when he ended the year at the summit of the ATP rankings… but was only considered the second-best player on the planet by the International Tennis Federation. That year, the ITF opted to name Novak Djokovic its World Champion on account of his superior consistency at the highest level: at Grand Slams, the Serb posted one title, two final appearances and a semi-final showing, while Nadal's two Slam titles were offset by a first-round elimination and a no-show. Winning in New York, then, would mean the world to 'Rafa' in more ways than one.