Fresh Nadal ready to move up a gear 

Three-time champion takes on Marin Cilic in last 16

Rafael Nadal smiling after his third round match victory at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Rafael Nadal would never award himself marks out of 10, at least not in public, but as he enters the second week of the US Open, he would surely admit in private that things could hardly have gone better so far.

Last year, he had to battle from the third round onwards, pushed hard in the last 16, to the limit in the quarter-final against Dominic Thiem and then finally, in the semi-finals, he ran out of steam as his body, and in particular his knee, gave in.

Rafael Nadal winning his third round match at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It could hardly be more different this year. The withdrawal of Thanasi Kokkinakis in round two means that as he prepares to face Marin Cilic in the fourth round on Monday, Nadal has spent just four hours, seven minutes on court.

Compare that to his rivals, including Cilic, who has played eight hours, 26 minutes to this point, and Nadal is positively fresh. While it is possible to be under-cooked, and maybe not quite into the swing of things as players are when they play every other day at grand slams, at 33, and with his history of knee trouble, Nadal would surely prefer things this way, even if he won’t quite admit it.

“I will prefer to play the match"

“You never know what's better or worse, no,” the 12-time Roland Garros champion said. “From here, the main thing, I am happy to be where I am. I'm in the fourth round, and that's the main thing. Now is the moment to push, to make a step forward if I want to give me a chance to fight for the important things. That's what I going to try. That's all.”

Nadal said he would almost have preferred to have played Kokkinakis than not, especially as the Australian’s career has been hit hard by injuries. “Sorry for Thanasi in the second round,” he said. “Honestly tough for a player like him, that he's very young and he already had plenty of issues, physical issues. Tough, and I hope it's not too bad.

“But for me personally, in some way, I will prefer to play the match. In some way is true that you save energy. So you never know what's the best thing.”

Rafael Nadal hitting a forhand in the light and shadow during hirs third round match at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Nadal has more flexibility

In the past, Nadal has always said the calendar and the rules about playing eight of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments made it hard for him to reduce his schedule, especially as three of the Masters 1000s are on clay, his best surface.

But because he now meets three criteria that allow him to drop three Masters 1000 events without penalty, Nadal has more flexibility. Having won the title in Montreal last month, he skipped Cincinnati and he has looked good in New York.

On Saturday, he improved in each set as he cruised past Hyeon Chung 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the last 16 for the ninth time and fourth year in a row. Three times the winner in New York, as the No 2 seed he is in the opposite half to defending champion Novak Djokovic and he had the luck of the draw to avoid Roger Federer too.

In the past three years, Nadal has been ultra-consistent in grand slams. He’s won four of the past 11, three in Paris and one in New York in 2017, been runner-up in two and reached three other semi-finals.

Rafael Nadal preparing a forehand during his third round match at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“The key is play well"

Things may be opening up nicely for the 18-times grand slam champion but now it is likely to get much harder, starting with Cilic, the Croatian who won the US Open for his only grand slam title in 2014.

Nadal got the better of Cilic in Montreal on the way to the title earlier this month but knows the Croatian’s serve can present him with plenty of problems.

“The key is play well,” he said. “That simple. If I am playing well, I going to have hopefully my chances to return a couple of points and give me chances.

“I know against big servers like them, chances are not a lot, so you need to be ready to expect a very tough one. But I need to be focused with my serve, as always. I need to be ready to accept the challenge that brings the competition in days like these ones. And I hope to be ready to play my highest level, because that's what I going to need.”

Nadal said he plans to only play another couple of events this year, which may just focus his mind even more on trying to win the title for a fourth time.

“This one is one of the ones that you want to be ready,” he said. “So here I am to try my best and I'm going to put my 100 percent to try to be ready for the next round.”