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Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Rafa's biggest challenge

With the U.S. Open just days away, most fans will be hoping for the first-ever showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the championship match. It hasn't happened yet, not even close. Fed's held up his end of the bargain, winning the last three Opens. Nadal? Let's just say New York hasn't been kind to him. His best showing was the quarterfinals last year, when he lost to an inspired Mikhail Youzhny.

Nadal is one of those rare European and South American baseline grinders who speaks passionately about winning on all of the game's big stages, including the grass at Wimbledon and the Deco Turf II at Flushing Meadows. His passport may say Mallorca, Spain, but it might as well read Belleville, Illinois, the hometown of Jimmy Connors. Rafa, like Jimbo, is all about winning tennis matches. You can be sure he's not going to be distracted by a photo shoot or moaning about the long schedule.

It's that kind of single-mindedness that should allow Nadal to succeed in Zoo York, a place that many of Rafa's ilk have long loathed. Just ask Bjorn Borg, Thomas Muster or Gustavo Kuerten. The inebriated night crowds, the Post, the traffic (and, the horror, the taxis horns blaring at all hours) -- New York is enough to scare any Monte Carlo-loving, cardigan-wearing tennis player back to the country club.

But it's not just embracing the atmosphere that's critical to winning. I suspect that Federer is skittish about the town; in Cincy last week, he said New York was crazy, and he's right.

To win the year's last major, you also need to play an aggressive brand of attacking tennis, even more so, perhaps, than at Wimbledon. Therein lies Nadal's toughest challenge. Although he's had success on hard courts, such as winning in Indian Wells earlier this year, Flushing Meadows, by many accounts, plays the fastest of the Grand Slam surfaces. The Open is the perfect platform for go-for-broke players who can't handle the erratic bounces and unsure footing of clay. Can I have a "Hell, Yeah!" James Blake, Andy Roddick and Sam Querrey?

Nadal has tried to be more aggressive. He's playing closer to the baseline when he can, and taking first serves on the rise. Fundamentally, though, Nadal likes to lay back and then pounce. On hard courts, big hitters can exploit his relatively defensive court positioning.

So while Federer likely will cruise to another final, Nadal will have to gut it out. He's up to the task. While he won't be able to catch Federer in the rankings to finish the season No. 1 -- one of Rafa's long-stated goals -- you know motivation won't be a factor. The spirit of Jimmy Connors will live on, and it might be just enough to give fans the showdown they want.