Rafael Nadal seemingly returned to something approaching his best form at the start of the year. He made finals at the hard court events in Melbourne, Acapulco and Miami. Nadal said following his five-set loss to Roger Federer at the Australian Open, “if this is how I am playing now, wait until the clay court season.” True to his word, Nadal dominated on his favoured surface, dropping just one match and picking up the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and at Roland Garros.
Hard Court Form
Hard courts have traditionally seen the Spaniard struggle with his form and more importantly his health. Recurring foot and knee injuries have often halted his progress as the season has gone on. Nadal has often been left at less than 100% fitness during the US hard court swing, if he has been able to compete at all. But Nadal has been in full flight this season, withdrawing from just two events, Rotterdam and Queen’s. Both of these followed successful Grand Slam campaigns and were of little surprise to the tennis world given his injury history. In fact, even healthier players often take breaks after prolonged Slam campaigns so it provided little cause for concern.
A Worrying Trend
But since his historic French Open fortnight, in which he claimed his 10th title on the clay courts of Roland Garros, things have been a little bumpy for the 15-time Grand Slam champion. Losses to Gilles Muller, Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios have led to some questioning what Nadal has left in the tank for 2017. More concerning than the losses themselves, though, is the manner in which Nadal lost. As usual, his competitive spirit and will to win were unwavering from start to finish. But his game was flat, unpredictable, and he was too often at the mercy of his opponents.
Usually when Nadal suffers an unexpected loss early in a tournament, it’s to an aggressive player with big weapons capable of redlining their game. Muller won their Wimbledon encounter with his rock solid serve. Shapovalov dominated the game with his forehand. Kyrgios controlled the points off both wings and attacked at every opportunity.
But a worrying problem of Nadal’s is his inability to capitalize on key points. 0-30 on his opponents serve, 30-30 on his own; these points tend to be played too cautiously by Nadal, denting his belief as the match wears on. At times, it seems like Nadal’s desire to win is inhibiting his ability to compete due to his nerves.
Much of his struggles can be attributed to the speed of the courts at these events. Wimbledon’s grass is naturally a fast surface. But the court surfaces in Canada and Cincinnati are the second and third fastest hard courts of the Masters 1000 series, behind Shanghai. This takes away Nadal’s time, especially on the forehand side, where opponents can hit the ball hard and flat to prevent him from dictating play. If his dominance on clay courts is secured by his ability to outlast his opponents from the back of the court thanks to the slow surface, the reverse is true of North American hard courts.
This year’s US Open is shaping up rather differently than in years past. Defending champion Stan Wawrinka, two-time champion Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Raonic will all miss the tournament. The fitness of Marin Cilic and Andy Murray is unclear. A player of Nadal’s calibre might be able to be slightly off their game and still make a deep run.
The court surface at the US Open is fast although not as fast as in Cincinnati. The Rod Laver Arena this year was played faster than Wimbledon’s Centre Court and Nadal looked comfortable enough in Melbourne this season. So, the speed of the court should not be too concerning for Nadal. But his form will be. Although he came into the Australian Open with just one tournament under his belt, losing in the quarters to Raonic in Brisbane, Nadal is typically a player who thrives off of match wins and rhythm. Also, as the Australian Open comes at the very start of the year, it’s a time when the playing field is fairly level form-wise. Not so at the year’s final Major.
Also of concern is that opponents playing aggressively have had success against him this year. Dominic Thiem, Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Roger Federer, Muller and Sam Querrey have all played attacking tennis against Nadal and triumphed. Players will surely be encouraged by this if drawn to face the world number one. The aura of invincibility he built during the clay court season is rapidly diminishing.
Nadal has played some epic matches at Flushing Meadows over the years, and another chapter will undoubtedly be added over the next couple of weeks. He probably has about as good a shot at the title as anyone but he will have to right the wrongs of the last three months to be in with a chance.
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