Last year’s result
Nadal has enjoyed more success at the US Open than any of the Grand Slams except Roland Garros and won his third title last year. It was not in the end one of his most challenging draws as he did not face a single player ranked inside the top twenty and did not come up against a seed until the semifinals. But his 4-6 6-0 6-3 6-2 win over del Potro was a creditable one, as was his 6-3 6-3 6-4 victory in the final against Kevin Anderson, who is now also a Wimbledon finalist and the world #5.
Nadal’s season got off to a slow start due to injury and after retiring from his Australian Open quarterfinal he did not play again until the Monte Carlo Masters in April. But since his return he has been almost unstoppable. He all but swept the clay court season, losing just once, and won titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris. He then reached the semifinals at Wimbledon for the first time since 2011 where it took an inspired Djokovic to stop him in a five-set thriller.
He returned to action in Toronto where he played yet more excellent tennis. He was challenged more than once. Stan Wawrinka delivered a valiant performance in a 5-7 6-7 loss in the third round. Cilic then forced Nadal to deliver his best in the quarterfinals, but he did so, winning 2-6 6-4 6-4. He then dispatched the young guns Karen Khachanov 6-4 7-6 and Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-2 7-6 in the last four and final respectively, before withdrawing from Cincinnati to rest.
Most important shot
For Nadal the big weapon is, of course, his forehand. But that shot, though effective on any surface, is at its destructive best on a clay court. Away from the clay Nadal often has to find other ways of beating an opponent. He has found those ways with his backhand which has risen to prominence over the past two seasons under the tutelage of Carlos Moya. Nadal has always had power on that wing, but he has shown increased confidence in the shot and he has been rewarded as a result.
It is particularly dangerous because Nadal is able to drill it into the open space often left by opponent’s in their forehand corner. That space exists because his crosscourt forehand is so feared that many players try to cheat towards their backhand side slightly so as not to be exposed. But if Nadal is regularly able to exploit that space, not only will he be rewarded in the short term, it will also leave more room for him to attack into with his forehand by making his opponent’s become more honest.
The one man Nadal will be hoping to avoid for as long as possible is the sixth seed, Novak Djokovic. He does have a winning record in New York against the Serb, and would have at least an even chance of winning. But the two are rightly joint favourites for the title and it will surely require a herculean effort from the victor should they meet. If that were to happen in the quarterfinals, as is possible, Nadal could end up falling short in the semifinals or final due to fatigue.
The likes of Stan Wawrinka, Fernando Verdasco and Kei Nishikori are also potentially tricky obstacles. It is also worth noting that Nadal has never successfully defended a Grand Slam title away from Paris and that no one has defended the title in New York since Federer a decade ago. But, Nadal seems well-equipped to do so this year and if he can avoid Djokovic, it is hard to see anyone else stopping him. Expect a run to the final at least from the Spaniard.