US Open Preview Rafa Nadal Favorite to Defend Hard Court Slam for 1st Time
Rafa Nadal, the top seed, goes into the US Open as the favorite after the draw was made, and if he wins, it will be the first time he will have defended a hard court slam. The Tennis review looks at one of the rare weaknesses in the Nadal resume and his chances of righting it this US Open.
In a career in which Rafa Nadal has won 17 slams, 10 titles at the one slam, 33 ATP 1000s, and the Career Grand slam, there seems very little left for him to achieve.
But there is one milestone, a feat that has itself been the peaks of great careers, such as Pat Rafter who won back to back US Opens in 1997-98, which the Spaniard has still to do – defending a hard court slam.
That gap in Nadal’s resume is one of the few weaknesses his detractors in any Greatest Of All Time debates throw into the ring when that debate starts getting down to the particulars.
Nadal has won back to back titles at slams and to historic effect, winning Roland Garros from ’05-‘8 ,’10-’13 and ’17–’18, and that back to back slam slam winning ability has meant he has the record for most slams won at any single event, that feat in itself one of his prime claims to all time greatness.
But, Nadal has not gone back to back at two different slams, and that inability to do so makes him stand out when compared to his all time great rivals, and stand out for all the wrong reasons.
Federer has gone back to back at three slams, (US Open, Wimbledon, Australian Open), Sampras at two, (Wimbledon and US Open) and Djokovic at two (Australian Open and Wimbledon), Borg at two (Roland Garros, Wimbledon).
Going back to back at two different slams played on two different surfaces suggests a greater versatility than your competitors, and in the current climate of the professional game, in which Grand Slams are the be-all-and -end-all achievement wise, who has gone back to back, where and how often can really make the difference when it comes to deciding who is greater than whom.
Not only is defending a slam a current mark of greatness, hard courts matter because that is where half the slams and most ATP events are played, and when it comes to hard court slam tennis, Nadal is already a step behind his fellow legends.
Federer, Djokovic, and Sampras have the more impressive credentials with both number of titles won (Sampras has 7, Djokovic 8, Federer 11) , and back to back wins.
Federer won five US Opens back to back (2004-2008), and won the Australian Open back to back in ’06 and ’07, and ’17 and ’18.
Djokovic won the Australian Open three times in a row (’11-’13 )and then defended his 2015 title.
Sampras won the US Open ’95-96.
Even if Nadal does defend in New York, he will still lag behind those rivals hard court wise, but that one, and potentially imminent, back to back hard court slam achievement would boost his already all time great career resume even further.
This upcoming US Open title defense is arguably Nadal’s best ever shot at achieving that elusive hard court slam back to back win. Nadal was already one of the favorites for this US Open men’s title after winning in Toronto, beating two former US Open champs in Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic on the way to the title, but now that the draw has been made, the top seed has reaped the benefits such a position gives him and is now the favorite to lift the trophy.
Nadal’s projected draw is:
1st round: David Ferrer. This is Ferrer’s last US Open, and should be a routine win for Nadal. Ferrer does have a US Open win over Nadal, back in 2007 so this opener to what would be a historic run for Nadal adds a nice touch to that narrative should it unfold in Nadal’s favor.
2nd: Vasek Pospisil/Lukas Lacko. Both of these players are at their best on hard courts, but neither are especially skilled at dealing with Nadal’s heavy top spin, and neither pose any weapons that can really hurt the top seed.
3rd: Karen Khachanov (27) Khachanov’s hard hitting won’t worry Nadal who will keep the ball out of Khachanov’s strike zone, and once the Russian starts overhitting, Nadal will pile on the pressure and possibly send any Khachanov dips into total freefall.
4th: Kyle Edmund (16)/Jack Sock (18). Edmund is the scheduled seed, but Sock has a good chance of making it to the round of 16 in this section of the draw. Both Edmund and Sock have strong forehands, and could really cause concern for Nadal in cross-court Edmund/Sock forehand to Nadal backhand exchanges, but Nadal knows how to pick an opponent’s backhand side and execute his down the line forehand with impact, and he will be ready to do so on the big points.
QF: Kevin Anderson (8). Anderson beat a favorite at Wimbledon in the quarters this season, and his best bet of beating Nadal would be earlier in the tournament rather than later, however Nadal has too much all round game for Anderson over a five set contest.
SF: Juan Martin del Potro (3). By the time del Potro has made it this far, he may be too spent to really give Nadal much of a match for more than two sets.
Stan Wawrinka could end up sneaking through this section of the draw, though, and while he would not have a great shot at beating Nadal, he might be the player who could test Nadal’s fitness the greatest and leave the top seed’s chances of defending a hard court slam for the first time a little slimmer than they might otherwise have been.
F: Federer (2). Federer does have the upper hand over Nadal on hard courts in recent years (5-0 since Basel ’15), and most notably last season when he went 4-0, but Federer’s ground game has been unimpressive this season and who better to exploit that than Rafa Nadal?
Djokovic (6). Wimbledon champion Djokovic may be winning slams and ATP 1000s again, and he’s probably the player Nadal would least want to play in as big a contest as the US Open final, but Nadal would still be my pick if these two make the final, the amount of spin he can generate consistently and with aggression giving him the edge.
Cilic (7). The perfect final for Nadal. If the inconsistent but in form Cilic makes the final, Nadal will be the heavy favorite.
Defending a hard court slam has been a milestone too far for Nadal so far in his career. In 2010 in Melbourne he had to retire injured in his Quarter-final. In New York 2011, in the final, he had to face Djokovic and his down the line backhand in top form. In 2014, he was beset by injuries and did not play. This year, though, Nadal seems to be on the verge of adding an extra boost to his resume as he defends his title coming in on the back of winning his first ATP 1000 on hard since Cincy ’13, taking a precautionary rest by skipping Cincinnati, and having as good a draw as he could have hoped for.
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