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Steve Flink: A Golden Season

8/18/2008 1:54:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Somehow, it was entirely fitting that an estimable man from Spain collected a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Since arriving in Europe for the start of the clay court season, he has won eight of the ten tournaments on his schedule. He has ruled for the fourth year in a row at Roland Garros, triumphed at Wimbledon for the first time, and garnered crowns on three different surfaces. He has now moved officially to the penthouse of his sport, taking the No. 1 ranking away from Roger Federer. He is playing the best sustained tennis of his life.

For the time being at least, Rafael Nadal has the world at his feet, and nearly everything he touches turns to gold. I believe Nadal is going to win the U.S. Open and thus secure his third major title of 2008. Despite his comprehensive domination of the game across the last few months, Nadal has not had much good fortune in New York at the Open over the last few years. He has never moved beyond the quarterfinals on the hard courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The conditions there have been too quick for his liking in the past, and he has come into the Open the last three years in a relatively bad state of mind. There are some good reasons why this has happened.

In 2005, Nadal, who had created a considerable stir by winning his first French Open earlier that season in his debut year at Roland Garros, was exhausted by the time he got to New York. During that summer, he had played well in winning the Masters Series event in Montreal, but he had also captured two clay court tournaments in the period leading up to the U.S. Open. The 19-year-old had overplayed and taken far too much out of himself. He was crushed by a top of the line James Blake in a four set, third round collision at the Open. The following year, Nadal made it to his first Wimbledon final, losing to Federer in four sets. He took about a month off before the hard court season but was unimpressive. At the U.S. Open, he fell unexpectedly to Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals. Maybe then he should have played a bit more during the hard court season.

Last year, Nadal honored a commitment to play Stuttgart on the clay. He won that tournament but sustained a knee injury. He had another relatively poor hard court campaign, and then was ousted by an inspired David Ferrer at the U.S. Open. He never seemed to psychologically recover from losing a hard fought, five set final to Federer at Wimbledon a year ago, and did not win another tournament after Stuttgart for the rest of the year. The pattern was similar in 2006, when he failed to reach a final after his Wimbledon setback.

This year, of course, everything has changed dramatically. Winning Wimbledon was the realization of his largest dream, and holding back Federer in that monumental collision carried Nadal into the hard court season on a wave of optimism and exhilaration. Since Wimbledon, he won Toronto, lost to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Cincinnati, and then came through handsomely in Beijing with another notable triumph. He has never been better prepared for a U.S. Open. Perhaps he has put his body through an inordinately rigorous campaign by having played so much tennis across 2008, but now he knows he is the best tennis player in the world and his morale must be at an all time high.

Nevertheless, Nadal realizes that Federer and Djokovic will be fully motivated to secure the last Grand Slam championship of 2008. Federer is going for a fifth U.S. Open title in a row, and this is his final chance to salvage a major this season. Djokovic opened 2008 by collecting the first Grand Slam tournament crown of his career in Melbourne on hard courts at the Australian Open. He has not won a tournament since the Italian Open in May, but is a terrific hard court player. He demonstrated that fact by pushing Nadal to his outer limits in the semifinals of the Olympics. Nadal took the first set of that contest but Djokovic blitzed through the second set.

In the third and final set of that gripping battle, Nadal was hard pressed all the way before gaining the victory. Djokovic was rocking the Spaniard back on his heels with the depth and severity of his ground strokes off both sides, and was returning serve mightily. Only a crucial tactical adjustment enabled Nadal to win that match. At 3-3, 0-30 in the third set, having been burned repeatedly by Djokovic"s scorching returns off wide serves, Nadal started serving forcefully into his opponent"s body on the forehand side. The "body serves" made all the difference. Nadal kept holding until 5-4, and then Djokovic imploded under pressure in the final game, missing an easy overhead at match point down. Nadal prevailed 6-4, 1-6, 6-4, but Djokovic acquitted himself well in defeat, and went on to win the bronze medal by toppling James Blake for third place the following day. The 2007 U.S. Open finalist will be exceedingly tough to beat in New York.

What about Federer? After the Swiss maestro fought back gallantly from two sets down and came within two points of victory against Nadal in the Wimbledon final, I thought he might raise his game decidedly on the hard courts. That has not been the case. In his opening round match of his first post-Wimbledon event in Toronto, Federer lost inexplicably to Gilles Simon. He led 3-1 with a break point for 4-1 in the final set of that match, but mishandled a backhand volley. Simon rallied to 3-3 but Federer broke again for 4-3. Remarkably, he never won another game, bowing 2-6, 7-5, 6-4. In the final game of that match, Federer lost his serve at love on four consecutive unforced errors--- three of them off the forehand side. What an uncharacteristic collapse that was.

Having lost in Canada right off the bat, Federer went to Cincinnati in search of confidence and a run at the title. But he struggled hard there. Robby Ginepri served for the match against Federer but Federer got out of that one. But then he lost to Ivo Karlovic for the first time in seven career head-to-head clashes. The 6"10" Croatian won 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-6 (5). Federer never lost his serve in the match, and played reasonably well. But in the two tie-breaks, Karlovic gave nothing away and Federer missed some crucial second serve returns, including one at match point down. Coming into that contest, Federer had won eight of nine career tie-breaks against Karlovic.

In Beijing, Federer avenged his 2004 Olympic loss to Thomas Berdych, reaching the quarterfinals with a straight set triumph. He took on James Blake, who had won only one set in eight previous meetings against the Swiss. This time around, Blake served surprisingly well and played an intelligent match. He was patient and purposeful from the back of the court, and I thought his backhand sliced approach shot was outstanding. He got great depth on that shot, played it deep down the middle to cut off the angles, and made it nearly impossible for Federer to pass him.

Clearly, Blake played an outstanding match. But Federer assuredly did not. He was making fundamental mistakes off both sides. He did not serve well. And he was pressing. His forehand let him down frequently. Blake surged to a 6-4, 3-0 lead but Federer got back to 3-3 in the second set. Thereafter, Blake always held the upper hand and he was much more solid in the tie-break, winning the match 6-4, 7-6 (2). Blake then lost an agonizing 4-6, 7-5, 11-9 encounter with Fernando Gonzalez in the semifinals. Much was made later over a controversial moment in that match. With the Chilean serving at 8-9 in the final set, a Blake passing shot appeared to have nicked the racket of Gonzalez at the net. But the umpire did not call it, and Gonzalez did not turn himself in and concede the point. Gonzalez won the last three games from there to reach the final, which he lost in straight sets to Nadal.

Blake spoke out candidly about the incident. He was convinced Gonzalez had touched that ball with his racket and felt his opponent should have given up that point. I saw many inconclusive replays of that point. Blake is lauded deservedly across the board for his impeccable sportsmanship but he may have overreacted here. Moreover, he was probably distressed with himself for not exploiting a triple match point opportunity earlier with Gonzalez serving at 5-6 in the third set. That was unmistakably his fault.

In any event, Federer joined forces with Stanislas Wawrinka to win the gold medal in doubles, and has seldom if ever been more emotive and joyous on a tennis court. That win irrefutably meant a great deal to him. But he still comes into the Open having won only 2 of 14 tournaments in 2008. He will need to raise his game markedly to win the U.S. Open this time around.

In all four of his victorious U.S. Open runs from 2004 through 2007, Federer always won at least one summer hard court tournament leading up to the proceedings in New York. Moreover, he has never come to the U.S. Open in this span without having taken at least one Grand Slam title earlier in the year. Federer has an awful lot riding on this tournament. Can he rekindle some of his old magic on one of his favorite stages? There is no easy answer to that crucial question. But this much is certain: holding onto his crown after all he has endured this year would be a remarkable achievement.

Aside from Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, can anyone else win the Open? Although he remains a long shot, Andy Murray--- under ideal circumstances--- could walk away with the title. Murray made it to the semifinals in Toronto with a win over Djokovic and played a fine match against Nadal. Then he won Cincinnati, wearing down Djokovic on a debilitating afternoon in the final. Murray lost in the opening round of the Olympics, but that could benefit him in New York. I see him as a strong contender, as someone who could be around on the final weekend. In the final analysis, though, I don"t believe he is ready this time around.

Andy Roddick can"t be counted out, but, despite a final round appearance in Los Angeles, he has not had a good summer. His year has been disrupted by injuries. Roddick remains a ferocious competitor, and he loves the fast hard courts at the Open. This is a man who won his only Grand Slam event at the 2003 U.S. Open. He made it back to the final unexpectedly in 2006. And he could get on a roll in New York. He has, after all, beaten Nadal, Federer and Djokovic on hard courts this year. But all of those wins were recorded over the past winter and spring. Roddick does not seem to be the same commanding player now.

As for Juan Martin Del Petro, could any rising player be more commanding at the moment? On Sunday, he won his fourth straight tournament and his second hard court championship in a row by coming through in Washington. The 6'6", 19-year-old Del Potro will surely make his presence known at the Open. He has a chance to go deep into the event. With the right draw, I could see him reaching the quarterfinals or maybe even the semifinals. But winning the tournament is another story altogether.

In the end, after a string of U.S. Open disappointments in recent years, after coming into the season's last major too often as a depleted figure, after all that, Rafael Nadal will show up this time knowing he is the man to beat. I have a feeling he will add one more shining jewel in New York to his rapidly growing collection.

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