- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- Before the U.S. Open began, winning it was the one subject Rafael Nadal was uncomfortable tackling.
But as he progressed through the draw, charging forward with conviction on a swift court that does not reward the gifts of his game, Nadal's actions betrayed his desire.
Finally, after he reached the semifinals by defeating fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, he actually told the truth.
"Right now for me is very, very nice feeling being in semifinals for third straight time," Nadal said in his on-the-court interview. "It's one of the most important tournaments -- for me, probably the most important."
Perhaps it was the adrenaline that was still coursing through his veins, or maybe it was just the right time to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Clearly, this means the world to him.
If he knew the remarkable backdrop of history working against him, he might never have addressed the subject at all. Monday's four-set win over Novak Djokovic ended an intriguing but overlooked streak that stretched across 41 years.
Having already secured the French Open and Wimbledon titles, Nadal won his third straight major. That hadn't happened in a calendar year since 1969, when Rod Laver won all four Grand Slam singles titles.
Nadal has won on the hard courts of Melbourne, the red clay of Roland Garros (five times) and the grass at the All England Club (twice), but his seven previous visits to the National Tennis Center had yet to result in hoisted hardware.
Before the tournament began, he was asked why.
"I don't know," Nadal said softly.
And then he started talking about the tennis balls -- not as soft as Wimbledon's.
"The ball don't get that topspin that I like to play with," he explained.
The wind -- New York has more than any other Slam.
"Sometime when you are against the wind," he said, "seems like you are not moving the ball."
The court -- very fast in the heat of late summer.
"After a few years I think I am playing better and better in this tournament," he said, "but still the center court difficult to play, no?"
Mentally, New York seems to leave Nadal unsettled. He's the No. 1-ranked player in the world, but until Sunday, he had never reached the final of the U.S. Open.
In the past, Nadal had limped into the U.S. Open fatigued by a full schedule. This year, he was fresher than ever. After winning Wimbledon he took a five-week break, which included three weeks of intense treatment for his sore knees that prevented him from practicing. He played only seven matches in Toronto and Cincinnati and did not seem particularly inspired.
Nadal's previous best efforts here came when he reached the semifinals the past two years, and his career trajectory suggested he would eventually win. After advancing to consecutive finals in 2006 and 2007, he won Wimbledon in 2008. He progressed from the quarterfinals in 2007 to the semifinals in 2008 to victory last year in Australia.
Twenty-one times in the Open era, a man has won two major titles in the same year but fallen one tournament short of taking three in a row. Roger Federer has won three in a season, but in each case the French Open has eluded him. In 2004, Gustavo Kuerten beat him in the third round. In 2006 and 2007, Federer fell in the final -- to Nadal.
Forty-one years ago, a slight, freckle-faced redhead from Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, navigated his way through all four majors without a misstep.
Today that redhead is 72 years old and lives in Carlsbad, Calif.
"Forty-one years, eh?" Laver said, laughing. "A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1969.
"No one's won three in a row since? That's really interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way myself."
The speed of a tennis court is a subjective thing. Maybe that's why players delight in these kinds of technical discussions.
The blue DecoTurf II surface in Arthur Ashe Stadium is faster than the main courts in Toronto and Cincinnati, but the Grandstand is considered faster, not to mention the outside courts. This is because the Ashe surface is put down last and isn't subjected to the foot traffic and weather conditions that strip away some of the grit that grips the ball on impact.
Early in the tournament, players debated whether the Ashe court -- quickened by the hot conditions -- was faster than Wimbledon's grass-covered Centre Court. Rafa insisted that Wimbledon is quicker.
"I just feel on average the U.S. Open could be the fastest Grand Slam, yeah," Federer said. "That could be one of the problems for Rafa here in the past. But the problems are on a very high level. I mean, the guy's won in Australia. This guy doesn't need to learn how to play on hard courts anymore."
At Roland Garros, he can win standing seven or eight feet behind the baseline. At Wimbledon, where the juicy, living grass causes the ball to skid on impact, Nadal has learned to play closer to the baseline. Although this aggressive style is against his nature, he has come close to mastering it.
"The way the ball jumps off the court, especially on the clay courts, it certainly is a tremendous advantage [for Rafa]," said Jimmy Connors, an eight-time major champion and Tennis Channel analyst. "[Here] the topspin jumps up into the hitting zone of the players. They seem to be able to take the ball a little bit earlier; it kind of jumps more into the hitting zones and allows them to have an opportunity to make a more solid strike."
In New York, because of the speed and the balls as well, Nadal is forced to be even more aggressive.
"I think the balls are faster here than they are at Wimbledon," Federer observed. "You can really hit through the court if you play aggressive here."
In seven matches here, Rafa played more aggressively than he ever had. He took chances. He moved forward. There was an astonishing moment when he was caught in no-man's-land well inside the baseline and he picked up a half-volley, right off the ground, spun 360 degrees and finished his charge to the net.
The speed of the court matters because Nadal was susceptible to the big servers like Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray here in the past. In his second-round match against hard-hitting Denis Istomin, Nadal fell into a 5-1 hole in the second-set tiebreaker but managed to escape.
Perhaps the area Nadal has improved the most is his serve, especially in tight moments. This was the revelation of the tournament, as Rafa made a slight grip adjustment to flatten out his serve. Instead of balls in the mid-120s, he hit serves as fast as 135 miles per hour. Those extra free points made a big difference. Through his first four matches, he held each of his 61 service games.
After his semifinal victory over Mikhail Youzhny, Nadal talked about the diversification of his game.
"But the conditions in every tournament are different," Nadal said, "and I need to have more options to do to try to win against difficult players like today. Like in the past, I had a lot of problems against Youzhny in the past, because I was playing before two meters behind the baseline or three meters behind the baseline, all the balls higher with topspin, and he had always the chance to come inside.
"Now I can change the rhythm. I can play a slice backhand. I can serve, win a little bit more free points with the serve, and I can play more close to the baseline. So the position on court improved, the slice backhand improved, and it was important shot for me to stop the rhythm of that player."
The real thing
In 1969, Laver won 22 of the 27 tournaments he entered. His match record that year was an almost-surreal 167-15.
Laver's physical gifts were generous, but his ability to problem-solve is what carried him through the 26 matches required to complete his second Grand Slam. The most difficult moment came early in the run at the Australian Open.
With the temperature at 105 degrees, Laver met fellow Australian Tony Roche in the semifinals. Laver won the first set 7-5, but he needed 42 games to win the second -- 22-20. Roche came back to win the third and fourth sets 11-9 and 6-1, but Laver won in the fifth 6-3. The match went more than 4½ hours.
"Certainly, experience allows you to do it [win all four], the things that go along with competing in one of these events," Laver said. "You have to take them one at a time. Go in with an attitude that if things don't work out in a match don't panic. You have to work your way through it.
"You're thinking, are you going to just fold up and say 'I've had enough' -- or do you fight through it? You also have to have that killer instinct. The thing in my game was that I don't give up. You say to yourself: 'The trophy is more important to me than it is to him.'"
Laver sees these qualities in Nadal.
"Yes, I do," he said. "Rafa wins the long rallies on important points -- it's hard to do, to keep the ball from not flying off racket. He just seems to rise to the occasion.
"I've noticed a few times this year, his serve gets him in trouble. But when he's down a break point and he serves an ace, that tells you he's very competitive. He's the real thing."
Going into the tournament, the tennis world was divided concerning Rafa's chances.
The ATP Champions Tour asked eight of its luminaries to pick the winners in New York. Only two picked Nadal -- Michael Stich and John McEnroe, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open titles in 1981 and 1984 but fell short at the French Open.
Although Laver allowed that winning three straight is "pretty impressive," he said Federer's three-Slam seasons might have been more difficult.
"Three in a row -- I don't put much credence in that," Laver said. "In some ways, three out of four is more impressive, because it's over nine months, instead of four."
Still, winning on three different surfaces in that narrow time frame is unprecedented; three of the majors in Laver's day were played on grass. ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert insisted that a win in New York gives Rafa the best season ever by a man.
Before the tournament, Nadal was asked to assess his chances.
"I hope to have another chance to play well here, to have a chance to win, but without obsession, no?" he said thoughtfully.
No, we now have come to understand, with obsession.
Rafa has imposed his fierce will on the last barrier before him.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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