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Rafael Nadal's Relentless Style of Play May Be His Undoing

Suddenly, every woman in the stands raises a camera, as if a Pavlovian response. It was similar at Nadal's morning session, only with children and teens doing the swooning.

"Rafa! Rafa!" they shrieked, waving programs, ticket stubs and oversized souvenir tennis balls in a frantic attempt to coax him to the sidelines for autographs.

"Mr. Nadal!" one boy shouted. "Can I have your racket?"

"I would cry if he comes over!" a girl in braces squealed to her friend. "I'm not kidding. I would cry!"

"Rafa! Rafa!" yelled a boy. "I wear your shirt!"

The U.S. Open has long represented Nadal's greatest challenge. Although he won four French Opens, Wimbledon and the Australian Open by age 22, Nadal has never gotten past the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

Hard courts aren't his best surface, although he toppled Federer on one to claim the Australian Open this year.

And Nadal doesn't feel entirely at home in the cavernous, 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the world's largest tennis venue. While the audacious setting fires up some players, famously rejuvenating the aging Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi like a supercharged IV drip, it has yet to bring out the best in Nadal.

"There is a lot of wind there," he says. "You feel small in a very, very big court there."

There's also the matter of its place on the calendar, coming eight months into the season. Given Nadal's penchant for playing more matches than his peers, he has rarely arrived fresh. This year, he may be arriving too fresh.

"It's not the best preparation -- an injury of two months," Nadal said, asked about his expectations. "But I'm going to try my best. I'm going to push hard every year to try to win it.

"The U.S. Open," he noted after a long pause, "is the only one who remains."

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