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Steve Flink: Nadal confirms status as U.S. open favorite

8/19/2013 4:00:00 PM

Over the vast sweep of modern tennis history, one of the sport’s most arduous feats in men’s tennis has been capturing the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown in Canada and then rising immediately to another important occasion the following week in Cincinnati with a triumph there. The masterful hard court competitor Andre Agassi secured that nearly impossible “double” in his golden summer of 1995, when he captured four consecutive tournaments and 26 matches in a row before Pete Sampras toppled him in the final of the U.S. Open. The finely conditioned Australian Patrick Rafter was victorious at these two prestigious hard court championships in 1998, and he went on to successfully defend his U.S. Open title. The last man to join this elite club was Andy Roddick ten years ago, and he replicated Rafter’s achievement of moving on to garner the U.S. Open title in his banner year of 2003.

Enter Rafael Nadal. Never before in his illustrious career had he won back-to-back hard court events. Although he took the third championship of his career in Canada this year, he had always struggled with the conditions in Cincinnati. In eight previous appearances, he had done no better than one journey to the semifinals. He was seldom at an emotional peak in that city and the courts always seemed marginally too fast for his liking. But Nadal’s Montreal triumph carried him into the Western & Southern Open with gusto, exhilaration, serenity and soaring confidence. By the time he came through in the final yesterday over a revitalized John Isner, Nadal had played ten matches in twelve days, raising his record to 15-0 on hard courts for the year, claiming his ninth title of 2013, recording a fifth Masters 1000 championship for the year, and a 26th in his career.

By virtue of his many exploits, Nadal has moved past Andy Murray to No. 2 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, covering the last 52 weeks, and he will therefore be on the opposite half from Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open. But, perhaps more significantly, Nadal has widened his lead considerably over the Serbian for the No. 1 spot in the Race to London. He now has amassed 9010 points, 2240 more than Djokovic. Nadal’s comeback after seven months away from the ATP World Tour in February was an astonishing feat in and of itself, but his latest resurrection after falling in the opening round of Wimbledon is almost as impressive.

The inimitable Spaniard left the All England Club with another knee injury after his defeat against Steve Darcis on June 24, leading many observers to the conclusion that he might be gone for a long while, perhaps even missing the U.S. Open. But his latest revival has been staggering. In the process of ruling in Cincinnati, Nadal overcame the gifted Grigor Dimitrov in three sets, came from behind to move past an inspired Roger Federer, halted Tomas Berdych in two hard sets, and then accounted for Isner in a final round duel without ever breaking the big man’s prodigious serve—or even reaching break point. Up against a daunting and often overwhelming adversary who owns one of the most formidable serves the game has yet seen, Nadal turned in a vintage clutch performance to seal a remarkable triumph.

Isner, of course, has been performing all summer with the crackling firepower and growing self-esteem that he exhibited so frequently across the first half of 2012, when he cut down Federer in a Davis Cup contest indoors at Switzerland, knocked off Djokovic in a hard fought semifinal at Indian Wells, and upended Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in another Davis Cup victory over in France. The 6’10”, 28-year-old American set the stage for his spectacular run in Cincinnati by winning the title in Atlanta and reaching the final at Washington the following week. Prior to his appointment with the singularly determined Nadal, Isner had stopped Montreal finalist Milos Raonic before defeating Djokovic in a virtual carbon copy of their Indian Wells confrontation almost a year-and-a-half earlier. Having stymied the world No. 1, Isner then came from match point down to beat one of the most immense ball strikers in tennis—Juan Martin Del Potro.

The Nadal-Isner final was first rate from the outset. Isner had been pressed to his physical and emotional limits the previous two days before subduing Djokovic and Del Potro, but he remained invigorated for his contest with Nadal. The American had been buoyed by the vociferous fans all week long, and they were with him whole-heartedly once more for this meeting with the immensely popular Spaniard.

Isner came out firing, eager to fashion a victory in only his second appearance ever in a Masters 1000 final. He connected with all five first serves in the opening game, releasing an ace down the T at 127 MPH for 15-15, another ace down the T for 30-15, and a third untouchable delivery down the T that gave him an easy hold. Nadal answered that call in the affirmative, holding at 15 with a first serve down the T setting up an inside-in forehand winner. And so the pattern continued, with each man playing his game to the hilt. Nadal dictated relentlessly off the forehand and served strategically, finding Isner’s backhand with regularity. Isner kept his first serve percentage remarkably high, and refused to get engaged in long rallies.

The American moved to 2-1 swiftly, succeeding with four of five first serves, concluding that game with a service winner. Nadal held at 15 for 2-2 with his familiar pattern, pulling Isner wide in the Ad Court with the slice serve, opening up the court for a sparkling forehand winner. Nadal managed to reach 30-30 in the fifth game, but Isner used a first serve to set up a forehand winner down the line. He then held for 3-2 with a low forehand volley short down the line that was unmanageable for Nadal. The Spaniard was serving from behind, but he accepted that responsibility with a calm demeanor, holding at 30 for 3-3 with an inside-out forehand winner. Isner, however, was unshakable, holding at 30 for 4-3, missing only one of six first serves.

And yet, Nadal was serving with unimpeachable authority himself. He held at 15 for 4-4 after opening that game with a forehand winner crosscourt that kissed the sideline. In the ninth game, Isner advanced to 40-15 but missed a forehand down the line long before Nadal made it back to deuce. He would force a second deuce, but Isner wasn’t apprehensive in the least. He held on with an ace out wide for 5-4. Nadal promptly held at love for 5-5 without missing a first serve, closing out that game with an ace down the T. Having pressed Isner hard in the previous service game, Nadal looked for another opportunity to impose himself.

That opportunity was not to be found. The towering American held at 15 for 6-5, going four for five on first serves. In six service games, Isner had been nothing less than magnificent. He had put in 31 of 37 first serves, nearly 84%. He had won 26 of those points. Nadal had done everything within his considerable powers to gain a service break, but he had understandably failed. Meanwhile, Nadal had to serve to stay in the set at 5-6. In his five service games up until this juncture, the Spaniard had connected with 76% of his first serves, winning 20 of 25 points. But now, in the twelfth game, with a tie-break seemingly pre-ordained, Nadal found himself in a very precarious position. An unforced error off the forehand put Nadal down 0-15, and he double faulted for 0-30.

Although Nadal took the following point, he then approached the net behind a forehand swing volley that was ineffectual. Isner cracked a forehand passing shot down the line that was too much for Nadal, and suddenly, improbably, dramatically, Nadal was down double set point at 15-40. He served down the T to elicit a backhand return error from Isner to make it 30-40, and then aced Isner down the T in the Ad court for deuce. That was a cagey move from one of the sport’s deepest thinkers. On the following point, with Isner leaning to his left anticipating another delivery to his backhand, Nadal released a second serve ace out wide in the deuce court to the forehand. That one confounded Isner even more. Nadal reached 6-6 by going wide to the backhand with a first serve, and Isner’s return was errant.

And so the tie-break was on after all. Isner opened the sequence in style with an ace. Nadal came through to win the next two points on serve, but Isner responded in kind. It was 3-2 for the American but Nadal took his two service points confidently. Until Isner served at 3-4, neither man had missed a first serve. But now Isner did, and Nadal kept his return high and reasonably deep. Isner missed an inside-out forehand response. The Spaniard had a mini-break and a 5-3 lead, but Isner won the next point with a forehand winner up the line off a short return from Nadal.

Nadal seemed poised to close out the tie-break, but he drove a forehand inside out wide, one of his rare misses off that side, and at the worst possible time. It was 5-5. Nadal refused to dwell on the uncharacteristic mistake, moving to 6-5 with a heavy kicking second serve that Isner could not handle. Isner missed his first serve, but his second serve kicker bounded way up high, and Nadal uncomfortably drove his forehand return well beyond the baseline. Isner missed another first serve, but Nadal’s return was cautious. Isner stepped in and drove a forehand down the line into the clear. It was 7-6 for the American, and he was at set point for the third time.

Nadal played the percentages skillfully on this critical point. He got the first serve in and found the Isner backhand with a high bounding forehand. Isner hit his two-hander long. That made it 7-7. Nadal sent a forehand down the line, making Isner cover too much court. The American sliced a forehand into the net. The Spaniard had earned a second set point, but Isner erased it emphatically with a 136 MPH ace out wide in the Ad court, a serve he hits better than anyone in tennis. It was 8-8. Isner produced a 135 MPH first serve that an alert Nadal managed to get back in play. Isner approached on the Nadal backhand, and the Spaniard went for a low passing shot crosscourt, hit hard and deliberately, designed to coax the American into a mistake.

The strategy was successful. Isner tried a difficult forehand drop volley but sent it into the net. Nadal was serving at 9-8, and he missed the first serve. But his second serve was just good enough. Isner attempted to run around his backhand for an inside-out forehand return, yet he drove the ball into the net. Nadal had somehow salvaged a set against a man who had a 32-12 record in tie-breaks. Isner had finished the set at 78% on first serves while Nadal was at 74%. Isner had unleashed 25 winners, 15 more than Nadal. But the Spaniard had been masterfully disciplined, making only 6 unforced errors while Isner had 19. That three to one ratio was telling.

On they moved to the second set. In the first six games, both men were virtually unstoppable on serve as they followed their different formulas.  In three service games, Nadal conceded only two points; Isner allowed Nadal only one point in his three service games. But Nadal wandered into dangerous territory in the seventh game of that second set, missing a forehand inside-in to fall behind 30-40. This was as good as a set point for Isner, and both men knew it. Nadal missed the first serve but made his way forward, depositing a backhand drop volley elegantly for a winner off a well struck low forehand passing shot from Isner.

Nadal approached crosscourt off the forehand to set up a backhand volley winner crosscourt, and then crunched a forehand down the line for another outright winner. From break point down, he had released a trio of winners, holding on for 4-3, reasserting himself in the process. Admirably, Isner refused to buckle. He held at 30 for 4-4, serving two aces in that game. Nadal held at love for 5-4, and at last got a glimpse on Isner’s serve. With the American serving to stay in the match, Nadal profited from a pair of Isner unforced errors. It was 0-30. Nadal was two elusive points from garnering the title. Once more, Isner would not buckle. He cracked a service winner down the T, walloped another forehand inside-out winner, served-and-volleyed his way to 40-30 as Nadal missed the return, and then sent another whistling forehand out of Nadal’s reach.

It was 5-5. Both men held easily to set up another tie-break. Nadal had never even been to break point on Isner’s stupendous serve. Now the Spaniard would have to win a second set tie-break if he wanted to close the account in straight sets. Nadal served first, moved ahead 1-0, and then made a terrific forehand blocked return off a big first serve, keeping it low crosscourt. A harried Isner netted a backhand down the line. Nadal had the quick mini-break for 2-0. Isner closed the gap to 2-1, but the American missed a forehand return, and Nadal followed with a superb forehand drop shot winner for 4-1.

Isner knew he was running out of time, energy and options. He netted an inside-out forehand and Nadal had extended his lead to 5-1. Isner took the next two points to close the gap to 5-3, but then went for a blazing forehand return winner off a second serve, and that shot found the net. It was triple match point for Nadal. Isner approached on Nadal’s forehand somewhat in desperation, and the Spaniard laced his passing shot down the line for a winner. Nadal had captured his third hard court title of the year, and his fifth Masters 1000 crown as well. It was a job exceedingly well done against a player who had upended three top ten players during the week. In many ways, Isner had played even better in defeat; he had simply confronted the greatest player in the game in a final. For Nadal, this was career title No. 59. He has lost only 23 finals over the course of his career.

In the semifinals, Nadal was relatively flat against Berdych after exploring his emotional limits the evening before against a highly charged Federer. But the Spaniard had history almost entirely on his side. He had beaten Berdych no fewer than 13 times in a row, and owned a 14-3 career record over his immensely capable rival. Although Berdych had rolled past Andy Murray in straight sets to set up his meeting with Nadal, he knows that the matchup against the savvy left-hander is a perennially bad one for him. Nadal refuses to allow Berdych to set up for penetrating forehands, sending a barrage of balls to the backhand side. He keeps Berdych running almost incessantly and his backcourt game is more versatile, measured and crafty.

The opening set of this clash was well played on both sides of the net. Although Nadal was not as sharp as usual off the ground, he served with deadly accuracy, primarily slicing his delivery down the T in the deuce court and out wide in the ad court. In six service games, he won 24 of 28 points with cool precision. Berdych was unrelenting in his own way, but he made one fatal mistake that cost him the set. Down break point at 5-5, he followed his kick second serve in, and Nadal’s return was there for the taking. But Berdych bungled a backhand first volley wide. Set to Nadal, 7-5.

In the middle of the second set, Nadal fell into a bad patch on serve. In the sixth game, he served two double faults (including one at 40-30) and lost his serve to trail 4-2 with a wild forehand unforced error. Nadal broke right back in the seventh game. Despite three more double faults in the eighth game, Nadal gamely fought off four break points and held on tenaciously for 4-4. They went to a tie-break, and Nadal opened that sequence with a dazzling running forehand passing shot winner up the line to get the immediate mini-break. Berdych rallied to 2-2 but then double faulted. Nadal pounced from there, putting away a difficult overhead, then drilling an inside-out forehand winner for 5-2. Another forehand inside-out winner took Nadal to 6-3. He won the match deservedly 7-5, 7-6 (4).

Isner’s semifinal victory over Del Potro was an opportunistic adventure. All across the first set, the American was hard pressed to hold serve against a relaxed and confident opponent. Isner was behind 15-30 in the first game of the match, 0-30 in the third, 0-30 again in the fifth, and 30-40 in the seventh. He survived all of those situations and reached a tie-break. The first eleven points went exclusively to the server, but Del Potro made his move with Isner serving at 5-6. The Argentine kept his return low as Isner served-and-volleyed. Isner could not get enough on his first volley, and Del Potro stepped around for an inside-out forehand pass that provoked an error from the American on the volley.

Del Potro looked like the decidedly better player deep into the second set. He broke to establish a 5-3 lead, and served for the match in the ninth game. He was serving into a burdensome sun, but Del Potro reached match point at 40-30. He went for an unnecessarily big second serve, and double faulted. A terrific forehand deuce court return down the line and then a timely backhand winner down the line allowed Isner to break back. He held on for 5-5 from deuce. The set would be settled in another tie-break. Del Potro was five times within two points of winning the match, but Isner came through eleven points to nine.

There was no stopping Isner now. He saved three break points in the opening game of the final set and held on with an ace. Del Potro was largely spent. He lost his serve in the second game, and Isner stepped up again to hold from 15-30 in the third game, releasing three aces in a row to reach 3-0. Isner prevailed 6-7 (5), 7-6 (9), 6-3, defeating Del Potro for the first time. Good fortune had come his way, but Isner took full advantage of it.

The match of the tournament was surely Nadal’s triumph over Federer, which gave the Spaniard a 21-10 lead in his career series with the Swiss. Federer had cast aside his new Wilson Prototype 98 square inch racket for his old trusted 90 square inch frame from the same company as he made his hard court transition in Cincinnati, but he had seemed devoid of conviction during his round of 16 victory over Tommy Haas. The German had a 6-1, 4-2 lead in that contest before Federer rescued himself to win unconvincingly 1-6, 7-5, 6-3.

And yet, it was an entirely different Federer who showed up for a battle under the lights against the premier rival of his career. For the first time since the Australian Open in January, the spring was back in his step. Federer was thoroughly inspired, reinvigorated, and purposeful. He seemed to catch Nadal slightly off guard with his deep enthusiasm and his supreme ball striking. Moreover, Federer mixed things up, serving-and-volleying often enough to keep Nadal off balance, punching his volleys with good feel and great depth, keeping them consistently low.

Serving at 0-1, Federer was pushed to deuce four times, making some glaring unforced errors in that game. But he held his serve, and his outlook changed markedly. Nadal had to save a break point before holding for 2-1. Federer was flowing, driving through his topspin backhand majestically, pounding his inside-out forehand with the old fervor. In the four service games he played en route to 5-5, Federer lost only three points. Nadal kept trying to figure out where to position himself for his second serve returns, but nothing worked. At 5-5, Nadal had 30-0 but Federer swept four points in a row for the break. Serving for the set at 6-5, Federer surged to 40-15 and then sealed the set with a majestic, flattened out backhand crosscourt winner off an inside-in forehand from Nadal.

Federer was down double break point at 1-2, 15-40 in the second set. On both break points, he missed his first serve, but Nadal’s returns were too short, and Federer attacked his way out of that corner, holding for 2-2. At 3-3, 0-30, Nadal responded ably to a crisis. He came forward to put away a forehand drive volley, then blasted a forehand winner crosscourt behind Federer. Nadal collected four crucial points in a row to reach 4-3. Serving at 4-4, Nadal was behind 15-30, but he went on the attack to force Federer into a backhand error. Nadal drew two more backhand errors from Federer to hold on for 5-4, and then broke Federer for the first time in the match. At 4-5, 40-30, Federer lost control of an inside-out forehand, sending it wide.

Federer garnered another game point for 5-5, but an aggressive backhand crosscourt from Nadal was too much for Federer. At deuce, Nadal got the depth he needed on a first serve return off the backhand and Federer was in trouble. He would miss a forehand inside-in, and Nadal had advanced to set point. Federer wiped that away with an overhead winner, but Nadal had found his range. Another fine return—this one off a second serve—provoked a mistake from Federer. At set point for the second time, Nadal got another crack at a second serve. He worked on Federer’s deteriorating backhand, and then drove a forehand up the line for a clean winner. Nadal had the set, 6-4, and clearly had a whirlwind of momentum as well.

Nadal commenced the third set with a love hold on serve. In the second game, Nadal raced to 0-40 but overanxiously missed a pair of forehands. Nevertheless, he got the break with a backhand passing shot winner down the line, and then held for 3-0. In those three games, Nadal won 12 of 16 points. Federer seemed to be fading physically and his supply of emotional energy was also evaporating. Nadal surged to 4-1, and had two break points in the sixth game before a persistent Federer held on. Even so, Nadal surged to 5-2. In his four service games, Nadal had swept 16 of 19 points. With Federer serving to stay in the match, the Swiss was two points from defeat at 30-30 but he cracked an inside-out forehand winner and a crosscourt forehand winner to boot.

Serving for the match, Nadal charged to 40-0 as Federer erred thrice off the backhand. It was triple match point. Nadal missed a forehand down the line winner attempt, and then Federer ran around his backhand for consecutive forehand inside-in winners to knot the score at deuce and bring the crowd back into a state of excitement. Nadal earned himself a fourth match point, but his caution cost him as Federer went to the inside-in forehand again, provoking a backhand slice error from Nadal. Federer was unlucky on the next point as his forehand down the line bounded off the lively net cord and landed long. For the fifth time, Nadal was at match point, and his forehand down the line was called in for a winner.

Nadal has sealed a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory. But television Hawkeye replays confirmed that his last shot was narrowly wide on the sideline. Federer had inexplicably chosen not to challenge that call. That confounded many observers. Why would he not have done so, even if he believed Nadal’s shot had clipped the line? Perhaps missing so many challenges that night made Federer reluctant to try again, but it was a serious mistake, and borderline unprofessional. Had Federer used the challenge system, would it have altered the outcome of the match? That is doubtful. Nadal would have still been serving at 5-3, deuce in that final set. Federer would have had a long way to go, and Nadal is an unshakable competitor. But the fact remains that the Swiss should have asked for the replay; he had absolutely nothing to lose.

Meanwhile, Djokovic seemed to feel as if the weight of the world was squarely on his shoulders when he took on an unwavering Isner. The first set outcome was determined in a tie-break. At 3-3, Djokovic double faulted and he could not recover. Isner did not drop a point on serve in that sequence, prevailing seven points to five. Djokovic got an early break in the second set, and made it count. The third set seemed destined to reach another tie-break. In 2012 at Indian Wells, Isner had stopped Djokovic 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, and now another final set tie-break showdown was seemingly in the cards.

But Djokovic collapsed. He was up 40-15 at 5-6 when Isner pulled off a running forehand passing shot down the line at full stretch that was highly improbable. Djokovic netted a backhand passing shot, and then made another backhand unforced error. At match point against him, Djokovic aced Isner down the T in the Ad Court, but then double faulted wide. Facing another match point, Djokovic was set up for a routine backhand, and he feebly drove it into the bottom of the net. Isner came through 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5. He was a decidedly better big point player that day than the world No. 1.

Everything is in place for a compelling U.S. Open. Nadal in my view is poised to win his second title in New York. Over the course of the two weeks in Montreal and Cincinnati, he beat a wide range of top players, including, Djokovic, Jerzy Janowicz, Milos Raonic, Federer, Berdych and Isner. Nadal raised his hard court game in that span to a level he may have never touched before, even during his triumphant run at the U.S. Open in 2010. He should come into New York finely tuned, filled with conviction, ready to take on anyone. Nadal realizes he needs to round out his record at the other majors; eight of his twelve Grand Slam titles have been secured at Roland Garros. He has two Wimbledon titles in his collection, but only one Australian and one U.S. Open crown.

The fast conditions in Arthur Ashe Stadium will, however, make it a considerable challenge for the Spaniard. Djokovic may be down on himself at the moment, but he is an outstanding hard court player who has been no less than a semifinalist across the last six years, winning the title in 2011. Djokovic was surely distressed by losing 9-7 in the fifth set of the Roland Garros semifinals to Nadal, disconcerted by falling in the Wimbledon final to Murray, bothered by his hard fought loss to Nadal in a final set tie-break at Montreal, and now unhappy about the way he bowed out against Isner in Cincinnati. But he may yet rediscover his form in New York; he has not won a tournament since Monte Carlo, which is surprising to say the least.

Murray will also be tough to beat at the Open. The defending champion was understandably listless in both Canada and Cincinnati after his immensely gratifying Wimbledon triumph in July, but he will inevitably display a lot more intensity at the Open. He will not let go of his title without a ferocious fight. And then, of course, the 32-year-old Federer must not be discounted despite his disappointing 2013 campaign; he has dropped to No. 7 in the world, his lowest ranking since the fall of 2002. But Federer’s performance against Nadal in Cincinnati was uplifting, but can he replicate that level day after day and night after night at a major? Can he still thrive in best of five set competition over two weeks? We will find out.

The way I look at it, Nadal is the man to beat, with Murray and Djokovic right behind him, followed by Del Potro. Del Potro has won the title before (in 2009) and he could succeed again under the right circumstances. Rounding out the list of serious contenders are Berdych and Federer. Isner and Janowicz could be around for the final weekend, but I can’t see either one winning the tournament. It should be a scintillating fortnight at the Open as the curtain closes on the 2013 Grand Slam season. In the final analysis, I believe the enterprising and indefatigable Nadal—the fellow my friend and learned tennis observer John Martini calls “Rafaloso”—will come through. He has given himself the best possible preparation. He has won all three of his hard court tournaments in 2013, including the last two big ones in a row. He is playing outstanding tennis. The feeling grows that Rafael Nadal will be the U.S. Open champion again.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.