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Friday, September 3, 2010
Rafa still a work in progress at U.S. Open


The courts of Flushing Meadows aren't ideal for Rafael Nadal, and based on early results, it will take a one-of-a-kind effort for him to win this tournament.

Was there something a little different about Nadal in his first-round match at the Open? Yes, there were the glowing yellow sneakers, the Darth Rafa all-black look and the clean-cut hair. But that's all part of the New York game. What about Rafa's game?

There was something new going on there, too. Nadal won fast-court style. He won two sets without breaking his opponent once. He won by focusing on his serve and letting the return chips fall where they may. He won by leaving the slice behind and gunning his serve up the gut.

Told he had reached 130 mph on a few of his deliveries, Nadal said, "And wait. Wait for the next one. I going for 135. No, I am trying to serve a little bit more like Wimbledon because the ball here is very soft. Is not getting a lot of topspin. I am trying to play a little more flat. And for that reason, I am serving faster."

What was more striking, but maybe less important in the long run, was that Nadal was also trying a flatter, on-the-rise, two-handed backhand. It looked like it had come straight from the bloody playbook of one James Scott Connors and his mother, Gloria. I knew there was mutual respect between Jimmy and Rafa, but maybe the Mallorcan is channeling the Belleville Basher on court now. Maybe his spirit haunts these grounds.

"The ball [at the Open] is the most difficult thing for me," Nadal said, "because the ball I think is more easy to play for the players when they have the flat shots. That's much easier for them than for the topspin players."

Hence his own flattening out. Still, Nadal missed that flat backhand as often as he made it; he rushed a few and drilled them into the middle of the net. Nadal said afterward that his backhand was better than it had been this summer, but he hadn't taken the final step back to full confidence with it.

Still, I think his fans had to like what they saw, despite the close scores. Nadal himself seemed encouraged by the way he played in the tiebreakers, and he isn't prone to bluffing about where his game is. What he may have realized is -- and if he has, I think he's right -- that it will take a one-of-a-kind effort for him to win this tournament. As much as Nadal has acclimated himself to the Open over the years, the balls and the surface and the location and the timing of this tournament may require him to go beyond his normal game to win it; simply playing his usual style and hoping to do it a little better may not be enough.

Nadal figured out how to adjust for Wimbledon many years ago, moving up in the court, hitting out more often, moving his serve around more than he does on clay. But his U.S. Open evolution is still in progress. What we know about Nadal is that he's willing to tinker and change. In New York, what could be more appropriate than adding a little Jimbo to the mix?