US Open 2011: Rafael Nadal’s bittersweet return to New York

World No2 believes he played his best tennis of the tournament so far to beat David Nalbandian 7-6 6-1 7-5

rafael nadal
Nadal beat Novak Djokovic to win the US Open title last year Photo: Marianne Bevis

rafael nadal

When Rafael Nadal completed his career Grand Slam in New York a year ago, it seemed only right.

Since bowing out at the quarter-final stage of the Australian Open with injury in 2010, he had just got better and better: semi-finals at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters, titles in the three back-to-back clay Masters, and then he became champion at both the French Open and Wimbledon.

With his sixth title at Roland Garros, he overtook Roger Federer at the top of the rankings and, in taking his first US title, he became the youngest man in the Open era to win a career Grand Slam. Few would argue that he was the best player in the world.

But fast-forward just a year, to June 2011, and few would argue that the best player in the world was now someone else. Novak Djokovic, barring a loss to Federer in the French semi-finals, had not lost a match in 2011. His booty included two Slams in Australia and Wimbledon and five Masters””even beating Nadal on clay in Rome and Madrid.

The No1 ranking was handed over to the new star of the tour, the one who was doing to everyone else just what Nadal had done the year before.

So perhaps there has been a bittersweet feel to Nadal’s return to the scene of the Slam that he found the most difficult and most emotional to win.

As champion, he was called upon to make the women’s draw and took the opportunity to tell John McEnroe, “Last year was a very emotional time for me, completing all my grand slams.”

He added, in his pre-tournament news conference, “It was a very, very nice moment of my career, one of the biggest moments. That makes the comeback a little more special.”

Yet he has been beaten in the rankings and in five finals this year by Djokovic and, to rub salt into the wound, he is asked time and again about the Serbian thorn in his side.

If he should meet Djokovic in the Open this year? “Well, I am here at the start of the tournament and you start to talk about a match against Djokovic. I have to win a lot to play Djokovic. And probably him, too””he’s not in the final yet.

“The chances against Djokovic always depends how I am playing, how he’s playing. I think I played a fantastic year this year [but] I am not happy about how I played against him.”

Was he surprised at the level Djokovic was playing this year? “He was No3 of the world for three years. That’s not bad. For me is a little bit strange that people from tennis talk about Djokovic, about his big new improvement. Djokovic was here before, no? Djokovic played fantastic before. For me it’s no surprise that Djokovic is No1. I did not lose the No1: Djokovic won it.”

But while Nadal seems to have been on the defensive since arriving here, Djokovic has taken on the bearing, if not the words, of the champion in waiting.

He exudes confidence, is relaxed, urbane and witty, and he talks with the assured modesty of someone who has nothing to prove. His image on the cover of the latest ITF magazine is headed simply: Star Man.

Asked in particular about how Federer and Nadal behave, he adopted their ambassadorial tone: “I know that I can improve as a player, as a person each day of my life. It’s important to always accept advice. Roger and Rafa are big champions on and off the court, so they’re great examples to me as well for the situation where I am now.”

With a run of two semi-finals and two finals in New York, Djokovic will hope, if not expect, to take the title this time.

His progress has been seamless, too: a useful retirement from his opponent in the second set of his opener; a win for the loss of just two games in the second; a comfortable win over Nikolay Davydenko in the third. He has the charismatic Alexandr Dolgopolov next but his two most significant threats, the No7 seed Gael Monfils and No9 Tomas Berdych, have gone.

Nadal, meanwhile, had a reasonable workout in his opener””a 6-3 7-6 7-5 win over Andrey Golubev””before also benefitting from a retirement in his second match. But Nadal is a man who thrives on court-time and, since the Wimbledon final, he has won just two matches through the Montreal-Cincinnati Masters swing.

So beating a player like David Nalbandian in the third round was not a given. The Argentine has beaten Nadal twice in their four meetings, and although Nadal won the last two, he had to come back from a set down in both of them.

Nalbandian has the kind of flat, angled, tactical tennis that finds a way into the rhythmic Nadal game. The two men also happen to be good friends. As Nadal said ahead of the match: “He is one of the players with most talent on the tour.”

But Nalbandian’s problem, apart from the talent of Nadal, is his catalogue of injury: hip surgery in 2009, a hamstring tear in 2010 and more surgery this year to an adductor. The worst casualty of this history has been his movement and stamina. If he was to make inroads in a best-of-five match, he needed to score quickly and early.

As it happens, he did just that, breaking Nadal in the fifth game with the help of two outright backhand winners””one down the line, one cross-court””and a double fault from Nadal.

Nalbandian served for the set at 5-4 but threw in an inexplicable drop shot error and then double faulted on break point. It went to a tie-break and despite a couple of text-book cross-court backhands to Nadal’s forehand””a frequent winning tactic””Nalbandian also made a couple of errors and Nadal took the set.

This seemed to revitalise Nadal, and his ground shots powered through the Nalbandian offence with much greater weight. It was attractive tennis””drop-shots, lobs, scampering retrievals””but to no avail against a Nadal in full flow. Twenty-seven minutes did the job, 6-1.

Nalbandian’s light schedule””four matches since Wimbledon””ensured he had the resources to put up renewed resistance in the third, despite a time violation warning to Nadal in the first game and a long delay while Nadal had blister treatment at 1-1.

Errors continued to pour from the Argentine””he made 60 in the match””and he was broken in the sixth game, but the tables were turned on Nadal when he served for the match. Nalbandian broke, this time courtesy of a Nadal double fault, to level 5-5.

For a short while, both men played near perfect tennis, exchanging drops, lobs and passing shots. Nalbandian had a break point in the 12th but Nadal’s superior speed and defence made all the difference. He held, just, and took the set and match on the last of three break points, 7-5.

Nadal afterwards said this was his best tennis of the tournament so far. It was his biggest test, too, and warmed him up nicely for an unexpected fourth-round opponent in Gilles Muller.

Nadal shook up the assembled media when he collapsed onto the floor””it was just leg cramp, he afterwards explained””but there will be no shake-ups before the quarter-finals for a Nadal who might, just might, find himself peaking at the right time for an assault on his 2011 nemesis on the last day of the last Slam.

Should he win that one, it may taste even sweeter than his 2010 victory.

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