Tag Archives: Rafael Nadal

Don’t You Forget About Me

London may be the home of the world’s best known monarchy, but in the tennis world, Paris has seen its share of coronations.  Every May for the past five years, tennis fans, the international press and frankly the players, have trudged through the narrow paved pathways of Roland Garros, past the smaller dusty, red plots of Earth known as the outer courts expecting to see the familiar coronation.  The King of Clay, Rafa Nadal, wielding his Babolat sceptre in his left hand, was the man, until suddenly, he wasn’t.

Hey, winning the Australian Open and sweeping four of the year’s first five Masters events is a helluva way to siege the throne, no?  Walking into Paris holding seven titles this year, Novak Djokovic had suddenly relegated the King of Clay to second favorite, or bare minimum,1A.  Frankly, who couldn’t have forgiven the tennis world, even those who ought know better, for looking a bit past Nadal in their prognostications.

I, among others, have questioned Nadal’s motivation to stay at the top of the game and keep winning titles he’s already won so many times.  Monte Carlo, a seventh time?  Ho hum.  What did Nadal have to prove given his indomitable reputation on clay?  Then suddenly, a strange thing happened, he wasn’t winning them anymore.

What was supposed to be Rafa’s sixth trophy in Rome actually became Djokovic’s second title there.  That third win for Nadal on his home, if not beloved, court in Madrid was also snatched away by the streaking Serb.  Rafa won “only” two of the four clay court tournaments he entered coming in Paris.  The No. 1 ranking he’d earned with one of the greatest seasons of all time in 2010 was suddenly and dangerously on the line.

Then Rafa came to Paris, jumped on Court Phillippe Chatrier, center court of the de facto World Clay Championships, and went down two sets to one to big-serving American John Isner.  Isner, seemingly unaware that Americans are not supposed to win anything in France but wars, nor that no one was supposed to beat Nadal in Paris, put a major scare into the five time champ.  Nadal would win that contest and then even more inexplicably struggle against his unheralded countryman, Pablo Andujar (and by struggle I mean, Nadal didn’t utterly destruct him) in his straight sets victory.  Nadal himself said he wasn’t playing well enough to win the French Open and the masses agreed.  As Djokovic progressed through the draw with an air of inevitable invinciblility; Roger Federer looked as if he’d finally shaken the shanks.  Nadal was workmanlike, getting through, if rarely approaching his best level.

By the time Nadal faced Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals, every commentator and fan had read the tea leaves left over from Bjorn Borg’s reign at Roland Garros.  Borg won six championships here, beaten in Paris only twice and by the same man, Italian Adriano Pannatta.  Nadal was out to write his own history.

 

Forgotten mid-tournament as a true contender, Nadal would sweep past Soderling, work his way past up-and-down Scot Andy Murray (himself a forgotten man coming into Paris) and rewrite history by toppling the arguable king of tennis kings, Federer, to win his sixth French Open crown.  Nadal’s throne may have looked wobbly, but when the dust settled he would, for the sixth time in seven years, be the last man standing.  We had learned new things about just how high Djokovic could go; we learned Federer wouldn’t fade quietly, but we subjects had forgotten our history.  At Roland Garros, Nadal is the King, end of story.  Vivez Le Roi!

Roger Federer used to rule all corners of the tennis world outside of the red clay fortress held by the Spanish strongman.   First, Nadal would pick off Federer on grass, then on hardcourts, suddenly Federer was a king in exile.  With Djokovic beating all comers this year, Nadal, suddenly a tenuous No. 1 and a healthy Del Potro back in the mix, it seemed Federer was about to be erased from the conversation.  Just before the scribes could finish their narrative, Federer changed the game.

Even in his relative “decline,” there weren’t a lot of “bad losses,” but there were questions as to whether or not he could win another major, especially after Djokovic stormed back to beat him at the US Open where Federer is a five time champion.  Federer eased through the draw, not dropping a set, but never inspiring anyone, but his most ardent fans, that he had could again be the absolute best.  Beating Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open was a statement win.  First, it was a measure of well-timed revenge after losing to Djokovic in four of their last five matches (US Open, Australian Open, Dubai, a virtual home game for Federer, and Indian Wells).  The win also abruptly halted the Djokovic assault on the record books, handing him his first loss since November.  Even bigger, it kept Djokovic from that extra measure of legitimacy, the World No. 1 ranking.  He and Nadal have owned the ATP rankings penthouse since February 2004.  To put it in perspective, the last time one of these men wasn’t No. 1 was the week Facebook was founded.

Federer didn’t win the title at Roland Garros, but he earned back a measure of respect.  In turning back Djokovic, the heir apparent, and pushing Nadal to the brink, Federer ensured he wouldn’t be the forgotten man of the trivalry come Wimbledon.  This run of form puts him right back in the mix.

One last point here, with Nadal maintaining his long term lease on the Bois de Boulogne and Federer back charging at the gates, we can’t count out Djokovic. You don’t go undefeated for six months by luck, not at this level.  It is all “coming together” for the Serb and the rest of his opponents are going to have to raise their levels to contend with him going forward.  Djokovic may be licking his wounds ahead of Wimbledon, where he’s yet to show his best tennis, but forget about him at your own peril.  If he can win 43 in a row indoors, outdoors on hard courts and on clay, he can win seven on grass.

I want to reserve my final thoughts though for some people we’ve forgotten about for at least a year now, the women.  This French Open had the air of a resurrection for the other singles draw.  If you’re not WTA CEO Stacey Allistair or maybe Kim Clijsters, I think you would agree that since the Williams Sisters went into injury induced semi-retirement, Justine Henin and Elena Dementieva went the whole hog into the sunset and Maria Sharapova ripped up her shoulder, the women’s game has been rudderless, scattershot and snooze-worthy.

 Maria Sharapova, Roland Garros 2011.

First of all, Maria Sharapova continues to impress me.  This woman is all guts and grit (OK, and beauty) and even though she was outsteadied by Na Li in the semifinals, by getting there she signalled that she is again ready to contend for major titles.  Once a consistent, top five ranked, Grand Slam final weekend presence, this was Sharapova’s first semifinal since 2008. Just when we were ready to finally write her off, her performances here and en route to the Rome title a couple of weeks ago, prove there’s life in the (not-so) old girl yet.

It was also a good tournament for longtime breakthrough threats Viktoria Azarenka and Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, but they’re still a day late and a dollar short in my book.

 

Na Li, on the other hand, is proving to be forged of stronger stuff.  She seems to be made to peak at the big moments, getting to the final of Australia and then basically getting lost in the Outback before resurfacing to win the big trophy in Paris.  Li’s historic title, like those of Serbia’s Djokovic and Ivanovic or Spain’s Sanchez-Vicario and Brugrera, has the potential to radically change the face of our sport.  As women physically mature younger than men, I don’t think the fruits of Li’s win in Paris will take long to be borne either.  Suddenly, one sixth of the world’s population and a tennis federation that once held Li out of Wimbledon to play in the Asian Games just saw what’s possible.  I will avoidthe temptation to overstate what the win could mean to women in China and Chinese sport as a whole, but I will say, it has given us all a reason to pay attention again to what in recent years, had become a forgotten part of the game.  I predict in the coming years, that the women will receive a strong infusion of fresh blood from Asia, which has been largely silent to this point on the global tennis stage.

Paris is a city that lives with its ghosts in plain sight, that remembers rather than renovates.  Is it any wonder that this French Open has given us so many prompts to jog our own memories?  Congratulations to the Champions, rest up, don’t forget, you’ll be at Wimbledon in two weeks.

Australian, Closed (Men’s Wrap-Up)

Rod Laver Arena

For the first time in my life, I was privileged enough to attend the Australian Open this year.  There was talk of a tourney preview between the Rally Cap’s headmaster and I that never materialized since I was finally able to sleep on a plane like a big boy.

Two weeks of blistering tennis, sightseeing across eastern Australia  and laughing at my snowbound friends now past, we take a look back to see what the last two weeks really mean for the big players in the tennis world.

The last six years have been so thoroughly dominated by the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal narrative, that it feels equally appropriate and necessary to start there.  Obviously, neither man made (positive) history in Melbourne.  Federer didn’t bag his 17th major, nor did Nadal wrap up a quasi grand slam by winning his 4th in a row.  After spoiling fans with the consistency of their greatness, this Australian Open marked the 8th consecutive major the two titans have not met in a decider.

Only the staunchest fan could deny that Federer hasn’t grown increasingly inconsistent against top tier opponents.  The shanks dogged him throughout 2010 and this 2011 Australian Open would be no different.  Berdych, Soderling and Djokovic (twice) have taken Don Federer out on the sport’s biggest stages. To the objective observer, this decline in Federer’s game is no news.  In 2008, Rafael Nadal reached a level of consistency and excellence where he could beat Federer even on his favorite court, Wimbledon’s Centre.  Rafa’s run of form would continue until the 2009 French when the Spaniard found himself injured.  With Nadal sidelined and hobbled through the rest of 2009, Federer seemed to some, once again in the ascendancy.  But frankly, nothing changed for the Swiss legend until late 2009.  Until then, it was still just one man who could beat Federer regularly, and that one man was injured.  The loss to Del Potro at the ’09 US open signaled a true, though gradual, changing of the guard.  Federer will continue to win, as he did in Melbourne in 2010; but he’s coming back to the pack.  It isn’t just Nadal anymore.  Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray, Soderling and Berdych had all joined Rafa in being able to topple King Federer in key moments. The locker room aura of invincibility has been shattered. Players aren’t walking onto the court down a break in their own minds anymore. That makes those close matches even tougher to win.

With this Australian in the rear view mirror, the end of 2010 looks more a smokescreen than ever.  Federer went 26-2 after the US Open, winning matches across the Asian and Euro-indoor fall circuits and in Doha just before the Australian.  These far flung, off-the-radar events were once the province of the Nalbandians and Davydenkos of the world. Last year though, Federer used them to stockpile confidence and (to a cynic like myself) ranking points against lesser competition so that an “early” loss in Australia, would not touch the ranking, further denting the aura.  Winning Stockholm, Basel and the World Tour Finals is 2,000 points, the same as winning the Australian (he also made the semis of the Shanghai Masters which he skipped in 2009).  Given the current gap of less than 100 points, it’s only winning the if Stockholm Open that has kept Federer as World No. 2.  

As long as he remains No. 2 behind Rafa, Federer can justify his results.  He can still say, there’s just that one guy, El Rafa!  Were he to have slipped to 3, 4 or 5 after Melbourne, there is question as to how Fed would’ve handled it.  Why?  Simply because we’ve never seen another player with such uninterrupted dominance as to have a case study.

Yes, Sampras won 14 majors, but half were at Wimbledon and he would flip flop rankings with Courier, Agassi, Rafter and others during his six year run as year end No. 1.  Federer won nearly everything in sight for 4 years and had an uninterrupted run at No. 1 for 237 weeks.  Sampras ruled an ATP democracy, if you will; others were heard, seized some power, revolted, but he remained presidential.  Federer was untouchably kinglike in his reign, guarding the ramparts and repelling lightweight attacks on his throne with a flick of the backhand.  Federer floated above the hoi polloi with only Nadal able to truly mount a serious challenge to his dominance.  Federer has 16 majors, but he’ll no longer be able to beat the other top contenders with his B game, and he’ll no longer have his A game every week.  Federer will always be a favorite, but he’s no longer alone.

Nadal

Rafael Nadal at the 2010 Australian Open

With Nadal, we are seeing a familiar narrative re-emerge.  He is simply not able to play at the highest level for a full season, his body will not allow it.  Nadal’s biggest threat on the court is his own body.  The last 4 majors he didn’t win he either didn’t play or was felled with injury during them.

Nadal is at a crossroads.  He will never match Federer’s level of day-in/day-out dominance, his body is too fragile.  This means he needs to focus on winning when and where it matters.  It means that any amount of overplaying, whether for a sentimental home crowd in Barcelona, for some far flung cash grabs in Bangkok or whistlestop charity tours, must be met with a firm “no.” No?

Nadal’s bodily boom and bust provides a potential chink in the noted competitor’s armor: motivation.  I know, it sounds laughable to question Nadal of all people in the motivation department, but hear me out.  Nadal has one of the most decorated records in the sport’s history, he’s won each of the majors, attained the No. 1 year end ranking twice, won Olympic Gold and Davis Cup for Spain.  Some will note he hasn’t won the tour championships, fair point, but that’s not even the most important tournament in England.   As much as Nadal relishes playing, competing, as any athlete will tell you rehab is a grind.

A player who gets injured as much as Nadal spends as much time on the trainer’s table as on the court.  That’s not competition, it’s not the physical and mental chess game that Nadal seems to have such a lust for, it’s a means to an end.  The emerging question is, what is the end.  What more does Nadal have or want to accomplish in his career?  Chase down Federer’s 16 majors, maybe.  Get that tour championships win, maybe.  Become the 3rd man to win the calendar slam?  All worthy goals, but are they Rafa’s?  Grabbing the US Open ended the last absolutely necessary test of Rafa’s greatness.  Will Rafa grow tired of the boom/bust, the injury and rehab cycle that has defined his career or does he still thirst for more? I ask because when Rafa grows tired of the putting in the hard yards off the court, his results will fall off. This is a question the supremely healthy Federer has never had to answer. You can’t make 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis if you can’t make the starting line. Again, the yin and yang of the two beloved champions.

The losing finalist Andy Murray did almost everything he wanted to this fortnight.  He played well enough to emerge from Rafa’s half of the draw, defended his points from last year and managed to shrug off the weight of expectation.  Because after his meek, passive display about Djokovic, I don’t think I, for one, will ever pick him to win a major again.

Sports Illustrated‘s esteemed Jon Wertheim pointed out that in the Open era, only three men lost their first three major finals: Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Lendl, all fine company.  Frankly, the Scot would cut a virtually tragic figure if he never won one given his resume to date.

The thing is, Murray doesn’t seize the moment, he waits for his opponents to trip up.  You almost expect him to drop his racquet, stomp and start shouting “It’s not fair, it’s my turn, MY TURN!!!”

If Murray’s facing a top player with experience in pressure matches, the collapse he’s waiting for is just not going to happen.  The most telling statistic to me is that Murray’s played 9 sets in major finals, he is 0-9.  Now, he did play those matches against Federer and Djokovic, but if you’re capable of making the final Sunday, you should be able to win a set–in three tries. 

Sure, If the draw breaks right, he can have his Ivanisevic moment, maybe even at Wimbledon.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.  Ever.

Djokovic vs. Murray

The Final Two In Australia

So what then of the champion, Serbian national hero, Novak Djokovic.  To say he’s on a roll would be an understatement, US Open final, Davis Cup champion, Australian Open champion.  That’s a pretty nice run. Hell, that would be a nice career even for a lot of players in the Top 10. It’s the last four months for the consensus hottest player on tour at the moment.  With the ATP sticking to hardcourts for the next couple of months, I would not be surprised to see his run continue.

That he’s finished World No. 3 four consecutive years tells you a lot about his consistency and high level of play, but also about the nearly static world order of men’s tennis as of late.  In most eras, a player of Djokovic’s calibre would’ve already bagged a few weeks at No. 1 and might be a major or two ahead of his current pace.  He just happens to have born into the era of two of the greatest players in history, and he still already has borderline Hall of Fame credentials.

The biggest change for Djokovic in the last few months seems to be his attitude, self-belief, not searching for the rip cord.  He no longer fears Federer, he knows he can play with Nadal.  He made a fine account of himself in last year’s US Open final and I give him an incomplete for his illness-marred results on the dirt last year based on how well he acquitted himself on clay in prior seasons.  He’s a legitimate threat to win at 3 of the 4 majors and his Wimbledon results haven’t exactly disappointed either.  The question for Djokovic is where’s the needle on his emotional gas tank?  Djokovic is a player whose own psyche can boost or destruct him.  He’s way too good to be considered a headcase, mind you.  But managing his emotions are a major part of him playing his best ball.

Logic dictates that Federer/Nadal era was bound to come to an end, but when? Will either of the two still be at the top of the game when we end 2011?  I’ll say both will finish in the Top 5, but Djokovic is looking dangerously close to crashing the six year strangehold on the Top 2.  Andy Murray, on the other hand, well, I want him to prove me wrong.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall

Who’s the greatest of them all?

 

Nadal at the 2010 US Open

There have only been seven men to win the Career Grand Slam in tennis and two of them happen to still figure prominently on Sundays.  Informed tennis fans often talk about the balkanization of the sports’ ruling bodies.  The ATP, WTA, ITF and various national associations all moving in differing directions with different agendas.  A separation has also become the modus operandi in our beloved sport for the majority of fans.

A civil war of sorts has broken out among netheads, and the figureheads, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are doing little to quell the firefight.

Each camp has their claims, Fed fans chant “16” with increasing determination, in reference to the Mighty Fed’s success winning a record 16 major tournaments.  The Rafaelites, however, say “14,” the number of times Nadal has downed Federer in head-to-head competition (vs. 8 wins for Federer).

Before September, Fed fans had another taunt, “Career Grand Slam,” at their disposal, but the fiery Spaniard destroyed that epithet with his four set deconstruction of Novak Djokovic at this year’s US Open, accomplishing the same feat.  Well, Rafaelites will quickly correct you.  Nadal, unlike Federer, has the career Golden Slam, all four majors, plus an Olympic singles gold.  In the last couple of weeks, Fed fans, flushed out of all other quarter, have exalted the importance of World Tour Finals.  The Spaniard stormed that citadel as well, only to be turned back at the last gate, losing a three set final to Federer, who captured the ATP WTF for a fifth time earlier today.

Partisanship aside, all fans should recognize that this is an unprecedented era in men’s tennis.  In the last six years, only five men have won majors.  Three of those men (Safin, Djokovic and Del Potro) have won one apiece.   Translation: there’s been Federer, Nadal and every one else has been relegated to fighting over table scraps.

Federer at the 2010 US Open

Roger Federer’s 16 majors is no doubt an unprecedented feat; while it is still quite an exclusive club (only Federer, Sampras, and Borg in the Open era) who have surpassed Nadal’s haul of nine majors.  The difference is that, none of those other men inhabited the same era.

The Sampras/Laver conversations are great pub talk, but there are too many qualifiers (the racquets, the string, the physicality, the competition, the court surface, the beginning of the Open Era, etc.) to truly say who would have been the better player if all things were equal.  All things could never be equal.

Similarly, it could well be reasoned that it’s all Rafa’s fault that Federer hasn’t won 20 majors.  Nadal’s defeated Fed six times at majors.  He’d only have needed to win four of those six to hit the magic number, 20.  I should note, Federer’s only lost one major final to someone other than Nadal.

On the other hand, Nadal has been thwarted twice in major finals, both times by Federer, both times at Wimbledon.  To wit, the last four times Rafa’s played Wimbledon, he’s lost no earlier than the final.   Without Federer, it’s logical that Rafa would have won Wimbledon before 2008 and then,  wouldn’t he have shifted his focus to improving on hardcourts earlier?  Take Federer out of the equation, Nadal’s easily at 10 majors, maybe more.  At age 24, he’d still have years to surpass Sampras’ 14.

The reality, however, is the reality.  Roger Federer has built a virtually unassailable resume.  16 Majors including the Career Grand Slam, 17 Masters, five years as World No. 1.  At age 29, he’s not just a Hall of Famer, but he’s arguably the greatest man to ever pick up a racquet.

At age 24, Rafael Nadal has finished two years as World No. 1, won 9 Majors plus Olympic singles gold.  He’s also claimed 18 Masters titles and helped win the Davis Cup for Spain three times.  Disregarding the future,  as it’s always uncertain, Nadal has already put together one of the strongest resumes in the history of the game.  He’s numerically a beat beyond Agassi on the list of all-time greats (more majors, more masters) and has a more complete resume than Sampras or Borg, two of the other GOAT contenders.

…and they’ve done it while facing each other.

The first time they two played was in 2004, at the Key Biscayne Masters, on hardcourts.  Federer had just won his first Australian Open two months prior.  Nadal, ranked 34th at the time, won that match in straight sets.  The next year, they would meet again, Nadal, due to injury still ranked in the 30s.  They pushed each other to a classic five set final, with Federer the eventual victor.

Federer won his first Wimbledon in 2003, and has amassed 4 majors by the time Nadal won his first, the 2005 French.  To take that title, Rafa had to defeat Federer in the semifinals before taking out Puerta and asserting himself for the first time as King of Clay.  Much would be made of Federer’s inability to win Paris in less knowledgeable circles, but this wasn’t Sampras struggling to get to the 2nd week.  Federer lost four consecutive years (and three Roland Garros finals) to Nadal.

Nadal would eventually win Wimbledon and expand his reach to own the Career Grand Slam, but twice Federer stared down his rival in the finals at the All England Club.  Federer would beat Nadal to claim the grasscourt major for the 4th and 5th time.  Their third match would be a reversal of fortune and also, one of the greatest tennis matches in the history of the sport.  Bare minimum, it was the greatest match since their 5-and-a-half hour clay court slugfest at the Rome Masters two years earlier that left both players too exhausted to show up the following week in Hamburg.

They each would complete the Career Grand Slam in the significant absence of their rival.  Federer taking the 2009 French Open when bad knees and Robin Soderling conspired to upend then four time champ Nadal; while Nadal would take the 2010 US Open after Novak Djokovic faced down matchpoints to topple five time champ Federer.

Nadal re-gained the Number 1 ranking this year one week before Federer would have tied Sampras’ record of weeks of 286 weeks at No. 1.  Nadal, on the other hand has his own record, most weeks at No. 2 (160) all of them behind a certain Swissman.

In terms of greatness, at it stands today, they are No. 1 and No. 1A.  This isn’t a series of champions separated by years and the evolution of the sport.  These are two combatants whose careers, as brilliant as they have been and still might be, will be defined by the presence of the other.  Like that other pair of tennis royalty, Evert and Navratilova, you can’t have a serious conversation about Federer without discussing Nadal and vice versa.  Each has done virtually everything the other has, within the same era and often by beating their most significant rival.  Each, individually, is one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Yes, there are still differences to parse, does the World Tour Finals mean as much as Davis Cup?  How do 5 French Open titles stand up versus 5 US Open titles?  Is Olympics doubles gold the equivalent of Olympic singles gold?  Those questions are in the eye of the beholder and I wouldn’t doubt either man may fill the minute holes in their resume that make for even that bit of conversation.

When all is said and done, I hope all tennis fans can step back from whichever side of the great divide, or Fedal wars, if you will, on which they stand; stop shouting and enjoy the view.  The game has never been so beautiful as to have two all time greats playing alongside each other…and it may never be again.

The Summer of Rafa II, The Reckoning

Rafael Nadal

I grew up a tennis fan in the ’80s and ’90s in a house without cable. In the noband (pre-internet) era, that meant generally the first image of professional tennis I’d see in a given year was from the Martian-esque red clay of Roland Garros (aka The French Open). While the fine print boxscores in the daily newspaper told a different story entirely, for this fan, the real tennis season effectively commenced at Roland Garros and ended with the US Open.

The whole truth is, the real season included, the ATP tour runs from January until Thanksgiving, from Adelaide to Zagreb on hardcourts, fast and slow, red clay, grass and indoors. The 2010 campaign only halfway in the record books, Rafael Nadal has played in Qatar, Australia, Palm Springs, Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, Paris and twice in London. He spends his downtime in Mallorca (just try getting a direct flight to Manacor) and he’s expected in Toronto week after next.

The frank reality is that for all the globe-trotting, the tennis season hinges on a relatively short European jaunt stretching from mid-April to mid-July from Monte Carlo to Southwest London.

Rankings for the ATP Tour are based on a 52 week rolling point system with different events offering different points roughly matched to the depth of the fields. Where we stand in late July, the current rankings reflect a player’s performance from this time last year to today, but again, that only tells a part of the story.

Try these figures on for size: 7,045… 6,905…6,885

These are point totals belonging to the top 3 players in the world, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The difference is that Djokovic and Federer earned those figures over the entirety of the last 52 weeks. The Spaniard collected 7,045 (of his total 10,745) between Monte Carlo and Wimbledon alone.

Somewhere between the uncharacteristically “early” exits of Federer in Paris and London (as much as quarterfinal losses can be considered early), the Neverending Story III, a.k.a. the Isner-Mahut spectacle and the match Serena lost against the glass in that as-yet-unnamed restaurant, Rafael Nadal earned a season’s worth of points somewhat under the radar.

Yes, the knees are still wonky.

Yes, Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner, guys only the most intense of tennis fans (and their respective families) had heard of, both stretched him to five sets in the early rounds of Wimbledon.

Yes, he’s still only won half as many majors as Roger Federer. (For the record, Rafa’s eight ties him with Agassi, Connors and Lendl, and puts him ahead of McEnroe, Wilander, Becker, et al)

Put all that aside. The man from Manacor is putting on a virtuoso performance that only a Federer fan could deny.

Nadal enters the homestretch of the summer, the real season, with one real goal, and it’s eight weeks from here, a US Open title. Two years ago, during the original Summer of Rafa, he was in a similar place. World No. 1, French Open and Wimbledon champion, even bagging the US Open Series crown. That year, the US Open Series was blithely interrupted by a weird little competition known as the Olympics, half a world away in Beijing. Oh yeah, Nadal won that too. Nadal would arrive at the US Open in ’08 with a head full of steam, two arms full of accolades and little to no gas in the tank. He’d fall to Andy Murray in a listless semifinal.

A lot of fans seemed to lose the plot, they returned to the old narrative “Oh, Nadal, that rapscallion, it’s too bad about his hardcourt problem.” The blatant ridiculousness of that statement underscored by his wins at the Rogers Cup and Olympics played on the same DecoTurf hardcourt surface as the US Open just weeks prior.

Never mind Rafa’s bad knees, abdominal tear or parents’ divorce last year. His saison interruptus again allowed people to revisit that other anti-Rafaelite story, that Federer was merely a superior player. After all, the Mighty Fed reclaimed his Wimbledon crown and for good measure, swiped the French Open trophy that Nadal had owned in 2009.

2010 started off with some nerves, some dispiriting losses and some more knee issues for Nadal. Then the summer hit and he hit back. Nadal never faced a top dog in Monte Carlo, but his form was devastating in dispatching his countrymen Ferrero, Ferrer and Verdasco to win his unprecedented sixth consecutive title in Monaco. He looked more mortal in Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros, but passed each test, leaving with a mouth full of trophy. 5,000 points and over $3 million in the bag, Nadal struggled a touch on the grass, but ended up in the winner’s circle where it counts at Wimbledon.

Now comes the run to the US Open. The knees are undergoing treatment, the bid for a fourth Davis Cup has been sacrificed and the Olympics are two years away. 5-time US Open champ Roger Federer seems far from his best form; Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are in year-long fogs. Last year’s champ Juan Martin Del Potro is questionable and if he somehow does play, it’ll be a rehab start, his first event since the Australian Open in January. There are obviously other guys who can make a run, Andy Roddick, Robin Soderling, the surging Tomas Berdych, etc., but as Rafa told John McEnroe in an interview moments after he won his fifth French Open, “See you in New York.”

That’s where the real season ends, and that’s the direction in which Rafa and the rest of the tennis world are pointed.

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