There's No Denying A Man on a Mission

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. -- There were stretches of ordinary play from the world's best tennis player Monday that must encourage his peers, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic chief among them. There were moments when Rafael Nadal was challenged by not only the opponent, young Sam Querrey, but by the wind, by Beijing Olympic fatigue, especially by the game's fastest surface, which might be as much his nemesis as anything.

Nadal labored on Labor Day, necessarily so to survive his fourth-round match with the young Californian in four sets. Nadal is the story at the U.S. Open for the first time in his career. Bigger than four-time defending champion Roger Federer, bigger than American darling Andy Roddick, bigger than Serena and Venus. The story is whether he can cap this historic summer by winning the tournament he's never been close to winning, whether he can overcome a surface that has confounded him in the past, whether he can complete the metamorphosis from clay court god to master of the tennis universe and every surface there is.

Not only is Nadal not avoiding the fact that he's never gone beyond the quarterfinals here in Flushing, he's reminding everybody in every conversation. He's stopping just short of saying, "Hi, My name is Rafa and I've never gotten past the quarters of the Open."

There's no denial in him, not about this mission. It appears he's done absolutely everything imaginable to make himself as great on hard courts as he is on grass and clay. He leads the tour this season in hard-court victories, has a 39-7 record and is one of only six men to win two or more hard-court titles this summer. He won in Toronto and in Beijing. He seems to have improved every little part of his game that needed work in order to beat Federer or Djokovic or, for that matter, Mardy Fish, Nadal's next opponent.

Nadal's never going to beat Roddick as a server. He's not going to beat Federer with 140-mph lasers, but Nadal has made his serve more a weapon than a liability, which is a must here. He's made himself much better at the net when called on to do so. In the first set, when he was playing well Monday, Nadal won 14 of 16 points at net. He can fire off flatter and more penetrating shots. He can be tactically aggressive when he knows it's to his advantage. So far it looks like Nadal has completely readjusted his game physically and mentally for what's to come, beginning Wednesday against Fish. Once upon a time, Nadal was a little awkward playing on grass, too. But he worked fanatically to get better on grass, and damned if his learning curve isn't as great as his prodigious athletic talents.

When told after his four-set victory that he looks more comfortable on the hard courts than in past years, Nadal smiled and said, "Not today." And he rattled off the hard-court tournaments (Columbus, Cincinnati, Miami, Indian Wells, Beijing) he used to prepare for this final exam. It's that last tournament, which ended with him wearing Olympic gold, that might undo him. Nadal is loath to use fatigue as an excuse but there's no question the trip to and from China has left him less than whole.

At least he has company. Dinara Safina, who played in Beijing also, noted the effects of the Olympic trip on Monday. "I was just so exhausted," she admitted. "I finished the warmup and I just said, 'I cannot push myself anymore. After the warmup I just started to cry."

Nadal, when asked, said, "If I don't feel recovered in two weeks we have a big problem, no?" But he did let slip, "Probably, I am not in the freshest moment of my life, but I am fine. The important thing is I am there."

By "there," Nadal means in the quarterfinals.

Djokovic and Federer are one round behind, and both play Tuesday. It's difficult to imagine they won't make the quarters. Given the magic of Wimbledon less than two months ago, it's impossible not to daydream of Nadal vs. Federer, 1 vs. 2, one more time this summer, though Djokovic, the No. 3 seed, could ruin those plans.

In recent years, the women's side has had more intrigue, what with the Williams sisters, the Belgians, Amélie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova. Now, with Belgians retired, with Sharapova injured and Davenport having more miles than the family station wagon, the entire women's competition seems to rest on the shoulders of Venus and Serena, who will meet Wednesday night in the quarterfinals. And they're just trampling people. I love tennis at the Open but there's no drama on the women's side this year. Every match Venus and Serena play ends 6-2, 6-2. Their opponents are road kill.

The good stuff is all about Nadal and Federer, maybe Djokovic if he insists on crashing the party. Federer is still the champ here -- excuse me, the four-time defending champ -- until somebody knocks him off. But it sure sounds like Federer is recruiting any help he can get. He told reporters here on Sunday, "If I were to win a big tournament again, one of the Slams or whatever, right away I have the invincibility factor again, which is great for me." Okay, Rog, whatever you say.

Look, Federer lived on a different planet for years. He played combinations of shots and worked angles no tennis player before him had even imagined. He went to a place for a while that only men like Ruth, Ali, Jordan, Gretzky and Tiger visit athletically. Nobody in tennis was Federer's peer.

But Nadal is now, and it sounds like Federer is trying to convince himself otherwise. That central conflict, that encore performance would be the best thing that could happen in the final Grand Slam of the year.

Nadal hardly looked invincible Monday, yet he won, and acknowledged as much when he said: "When you are not playing your best, the important thing is win. I did today, so I have a chance to practice tomorrow and play another time Wednesday."

While challenged, Nadal also looked and sounded supremely confident and thoroughly prepared for the rest of tennis's final big week of 2008. If he survives the final five days of the U.S. Open and gets that trophy in his teeth and a third straight Grand Slam event, he will have put together one of the greatest Slam streaks in the recent history of professional tennis.


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