- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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FLUSHING, N. Y. -- Rafael Nadal is going to win the U.S. Open one of these years. Everything about the 24-year-old Spaniard's career arc and relentless commitment suggests that will be so, even if Nadal won't say it himself.
Nadal is polite to the point of incredulity. The surest way to nudge him to act out of character the past few weeks has been to ask Nadal about his chances of winning his first U.S. Open -- the lone major he's never seized. All of a sudden, the people-pleasing side of Nadal vanished. That crooked little smile of his fell off.
Nadal was still unfailingly polite, understand -- he just refused to really answer U.S. Open questions before arriving in New York this week. The only tennis topic that makes Nadal even more uncomfortable is the suggestion that he's now a better player than Roger Federer. If you want to make Nadal really crazy, mention that.
"If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person don't know nothing about tennis," Nadal insisted two months ago, on his way to winning his fifth French Open title.
Then Nadal also won for the second time at Wimbledon.
Anyone notice a pattern here? Maybe it's time to consider what we've been construing as saint-like self-effacement in Nadal all this time is actually just him trying to put a small tourniquet on the pressure he's dealing with. It's one of the oldest tricks in the athlete's playbook. The things Nadal seems to protest loudest are what he yearns to accomplish most.
This year looks like Nadal's best chance to win the U.S. Open and become only the seventh man ever to finish off a career sweep of the four Grand Slams. Unlike other years, he's not going to arrive in Flushing hurt, exhausted or mentally fried. This time he took a five-week break after Wimbledon. He has played only seven matches since then.
Precedence screams that Federer, a five-time Open champ, is still the better hard-court player than Nadal. Federer's recent runner-up finish in Toronto and his title win in Cincinnati easily surpassed Nadal's semifinal and quarterfinal finishes at the same two tournaments.
Still, there are many reasons why Nadal will win the Open anyway.
For starters, the self-enforced break has seemed to help, not hurt, Nadal. That wasn't a given since he's such a workhorse. But Nadal seems to believe he played just enough matches in the past few weeks to sharpen his game without siphoning too much energy.
It should help. In 2007, when Nadal's knees were barking and he lost in the fourth round to David Ferrer in a match that dragged on till 2 a.m. -- a time only the late shift at Dunkin' Donuts could appreciate. Only now will Nadal admit he was mentally "destroyed" by the arrival of the 2008 U.S. Open after playing a packed schedule that included winning the Olympic gold medal in Beijing and his epic win over Federer for his first Wimbledon title, a match many people have called the best in the history of tennis. Nadal's 2009 Open chances were scuttled when, as he put it last week in his still-evolving English, "I broke my abdominal."
(He'd been plagued by a muscle tear for weeks.)
Nadal's career-long ability to evolve suggests he'll someday win the Open too. He never settled for being just another Spanish clay-court specialist, he worked until he became the best clay-court player of all time. Confronted with Wimbledon, he never surrendered to any of that self-defeating talk that so many players lapse into about being allergic to grass, and he's won twice. His best finishes at the U.S. Open are two semifinal trips, but he finally broke through on hard courts with his win at the Australian Open last year.
"How?" is the obvious question. Nadal's effort to answer that bodes well for his chances at the U.S. Open, too.
Nadal believes he now has a firmer grasp on why he does and doesn't win on hard courts more often. It isn't just that the U.S. Open courts are faster than some other hard-court tour stops. Two weeks ago in Toronto, Nadal admitted he's often been too indecisive when it comes to strategy -- when to play it safe, how to construct points and so on. But he's worked hard on perfecting the "feel."
"When you have lot of years here on the tour like I have now, finally, you understand [that it] is impossible to win big tournaments without play[ing] aggressive," Nadal said. "Playing defensive, you can win a few matches. But to have the chance to be in semifinals or finals is impossible playing defensive because finally you play against the best players of the world.
"[There] is no way that you can play two meters behind the baseline the first shot. ... If you lose the court, if you go three meters behind the [base]line, you have to play a very good shot. If not, they have the control of the point and is almost impossible to come back on the point. ... This is impossible to do all the match, no. ... So if I really want to have chances to win, I have to play aggressive. I must play aggressive."
Nadal hasn't failed at many things in his career once he's set his mind to accomplishing them. And so far, winning the Open hasn't turned into some full-blown neuroses for him like failing to win the French did for Pete Sampras, or how Bjorn Borg was haunted by not being able to win in Flushing.
Borg ultimately became so frustrated after losing the 1981 Open final and No. 1 world ranking to John McEnroe that he didn't even bother to take a shower or change after the match -- he just walked straight off the court, out of the stadium, and to a courtesy car that immediately took him to JFK Airport, where he caught a flight out of town. Three months later, Borg retired at 26. He couldn't take being second-best.
Nadal is the best player who hasn't won the Open since Borg. But he's never railed about the atmosphere in Flushing. Borg never seemed to make peace with all the chaos that comes with playing in New York.
Nadal got a little unlucky on Thursday when Murray, who just defeated him in the semis in Toronto, fell on his side of the draw.
The two of them could meet again in the Open semis. But Nadal is a far better closer at Slams than Murray (no majors) has ever been.
If Federer and Nadal then meet in the final, don't be surprised if this is finally Nadal's year.
For a change, Nadal says, "I feel perfect."
No one in the Open field can say they haven't been forewarned.
This could be the year Rafael Nadal finally wins his first U.S. Open crown.