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Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Bullish on the Bull from Spain

The summer hard-court season is in full swing, which usually means it's time for Rafael Nadal to fade. In his five years on the pro tour, Nadal, at times, has impressed during the summer swing, such as when he beat Andre Agassi in the final of Montreal in 2005. But he has yet to astound. In Canada, Nadal has lost in the first round, third round and semifinals. In Cincinnati, he has lost in the first round (two times), second round and quarterfinals. At the U.S. Open, Nadal has never survived the quarterfinals. Year after year, commentators have cited the same reasons for this drop in performance: Nadal's body, worn down by the clay-court season and two major tournaments in the span of six weeks, fails him at the end of the year; his offensive skills aren't sufficient for fast hard courts with true bounces; and he has to work too hard to win matches.

Despite the poor track record, I'm expecting a lot more from Nadal this summer. Here are four reasons I think this will be his best hard-court season yet, good enough to earn him the No. 1 ranking by the end of the U.S. Open.

Health: Nadal has played a lot of matches this year (he's 56-7 so far), but he's not as beat up as in previous years. Blisters caused him to lose his first match at the Rome Masters; that loss, and the week of rest, now seems like a blessing. At the French Open, he didn't lose a set (in a few matches, including the final, he hardly lost any games). At Wimbledon, he lost one set en route to the final and never played two days in a row (last year, he played seven days in a row because of rain delays). The Olympics complicate this summer's schedule, but Nadal doesn't have to win every event to have a great summer and take over the top spot in the rankings. If he can reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open, he'll be in great shape.

Confidence: Confidence often plays a bigger role in tennis matches than strokes, and right now Nadal has loads of it. His victory in the Wimbledon final -- over one of the best Wimbledon champions in history, no less -- will improve Nadal's confidence and might reduce the confidence of his opponents (see Novak Djokovic's comments here.)

Offense: Nadal's offensive skills have improved -- a lot. He serves a bit better these days, though that remains his weakness. His backhand is more accurate and forceful. Most of all, Nadal has improved his forehand, which was already one of the best in the sport. He hits it harder, yet with so much spin that it remains as steady and reliable as ever. It might very well be the best shot in tennis.

Schedule: This week's tournament in Toronto began earlier than usual to accommodate the Olympics. It should help Nadal. He has had two weeks off since Wimbledon -- plenty considering his better-than-expected condition after the tournament ended. After a long stretch of tennis, a rest is nice, but when it lasts too long, a player can quickly go from rested to stale. As Nadal takes the court in Toronto, he should be ready to begin a stellar summer run.