Nadal’s Rise Comes As No Shock

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – As Rafael Nadal sat on the podium with his well-earned US Open Men’s Singles Trophy, a smile came over his face when he was asked the last English question of the night.

You see, Nadal is a huge soccer fan, and since he doesn’t play the sport, but rather watches it as a fan, the little kid in him came out when asked if Spain’s World Cup win was more special to him than any of his nine Grand Slam Titles.

“So when Spain won the World Cup was amazing,” said Nadal, who completed the career Grand Slam by beating Novak Djokovic, 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-2. “ I was crying like ‑‑ like today, maybe, no?  But is different feelings, but at the same time every feeling is unbelievable.  But is very difficult to compare.  Football is unbelievable.  You know how big is football in Spain, or maybe you don’t know, but we deserved that title.”

Frankly, Nadal deserved today’s title as much as his countrymen’s soccer crown. By becoming only the seventh player in history to achieve wins in all four majors, his rise to the top is complete.

Only a short time ago, the 24 year-old was considered a clay-court specialist, someone who could win Roland Garros every single year, but couldn’t do much in any of the other surfaces. Rather, that was Roger Federer’s turf. Sure he made the finals on the grass courts at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007, but he couldn’t get over the edge with the Maestro.

Then something happened in 2008. Nadal started to catch up with the other surfaces. He reached the semis in Australia and a month after his fourth consecutive French Open win, he played a classic at Wimbledon, finally beating Federer in a five set classic 6-4 6-4 7-6 7-6 9-7 to break the barrier.

“In Wimbledon, is true I have to adjust a lot my game to play in Wimbledon,” he said. “But in my opinion, play in Wimbledon for me always wasn’t that bad, because one of the most important things on Wimbledon is the movements, and I think my movements are good to play well in that surface.”

Nadal always relied upon his speed. It allowed him to catch up to balls, but he lacked the big serve which he needed to dominate on the hard courts. Yet in 2009, he won Australia and many though that it would be the year of the Spanish bull.

Unfortunately though, it didn’t turn out that way.

“Last year I had a difficult year,” he said. “Well, I had a great year because when you win a Grand Slam and three Masters 1000 you have a great year, but is true the second half of the year was very difficult for me, have some personal problems, home, and after, I have a lot of injuries, here the abdominal, before, the knees.

“So, yeah, wasn’t an easy year.  But is, at the same time, for sure, is not good have these moments but live these moments but at the same time, yes, because after that, when you come back, you are ready to (through translation) value how difficult is win titles and how difficult is be there all the time, no?”

Even coming into 2010, Nadal didn’t seem the same when he came back from his injuries with Quarterfinal loss in Australia.

But he remained positive and as he got healthy, something very interesting happened. As Rafa rose, Federer may have lost a bit of a step at age 28, allowing his Spanish rival to take his customary French Open title, and then Wimbledon.

But the US Open remained the one missing piece to the puzzle.

So coming in, Nadal made changes to his grip on his serve, giving him an extra 12 to 15 miles per hour on his shot and a true determination to make this his year at the Open.

“So always when you are playing well and when you are in the right moment with big confidence, seems like you improved a lot,” he said.  “But, you know, there are moments when you are not playing that good, when you lose your confidence, you lose matches, and seems like you are not playing that good and you forgot to play tennis.  It’s not like this, and it is not like this I improved a lot since 2009.  I think I improved my tennis a little bit but is not a radical change, no?

“Sure, to win in here in the US Open I think is the more difficult tournament for me to play, more difficult conditions to adapt, to adjust my game on this court, for the balls, for the court, for everything, no?”

Yes it was. And now that he achieved it, Nadal has the enviable task of being on top, something Federer did with grace for almost a decade. But, something says this talented young man will pass that test with flying colors as well. Because he specialty is still clay, and Paris is home to five of his nine Grand Slam title, he still will be able to dominate the competition there, especially now with his new found skills on other surfaces.

And even though, he still has a ways to go to catch Federer’s 16 major titles – and counting – with a little luck for his health, Nadal could become the greatest of all time before everything is said and done.

Right now, though, the Spaniard is just looking ahead to the rest of the season and one other goal he has for his career.

“But my goal remains for me that the Masters Cup is the big, yeah, probably the last big tournament that I didn’t win,” he said.  “That’s true is the most difficult title for me to win, because we play it in indoor, and when indoor, indoor very quick surface, so going to be always very difficult if we don’t change that.

“But at the same time is a challenge for me to keep improving to have the chance to play well there and to have the chance to win.  So that’s what I going to try this year.  For me right now the next goal is try to finish the season much better than what I did in other years.”

Spoken like a true champion.

Raging Rafa Determined To Get The Career Slam

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Just look in Rafael Nadal’s eyes and you see determination. The top seeded player on the men’s side knows this is his time and the career Grand Slam is there for the taking.

Maybe that’s why the 24 year-old was so serious this year when by taking Barcelona off and concentrating on winning the all elusive US Open title.

“I didn’t change a lot in my schedule,” said Nadal as he reached the Semifinals for the third year in a row by dispelling countryman Fernando Verdasco in straight sets 7-5 6-3 6-4. “My schedule just changed so I don’t play in Barcelona. So I am fresher because I know how important is the US Open and I’m fresher I think because I had to stop three weeks during the summer without tennis because I had to do a treatment on my knees.”

Whatever it is New York is seeing a determined player out there, who is trying to break the barrier and become a one of the few with four majors under his belt.

And so far, so good, but of course, Nadal has the hardest hill to climb with hard conditions on the court and of course the 400 lb gorilla in the room named Roger Federer.

Now, the wind is something every player had to endure and Nadal has come up aces in that area. He said it was difficult to play tennis tonight and even lost his serve during the third, but that didn’t stop a straight set win.

No it’s the matchup with Federer everyone wants to see, even Verdasco, who thinks the title will go back to Switzerland rather than joining the World Cup in his homeland.

“I think if I need to bet here, I will bet for Roger,” Verdasco thought. “I think that he won five times here and he likes these conditions.”

It’s true Federer has been playing as well as Nadal in this tournament. In fact, everyone – and especially CBS – is looking forward to a Federer-Nadal final, something that has happened in the other three Grand Slams, but never in Flushing Meadows.

Yet looking too far ahead is hard for the Spaniard, and for now, he thinks his longtime rival has the edge.

“Well, for sure Roger is the favorite of the tournament, especially because he won five times ‑‑ five times?” he said.  “And six finals in a row.  No one doubt on that.

“And I am in semifinals, so I don’t think about the final.  Everybody free to think, and what Fernando says is completely fair.  I hope keep playing well and have my chance in that match in semifinal.”

Nadal has a date on Saturday with 12th seeded Mikhail Youzhny, whom Nadal has a nice 7-4 record against the Russian, but  took his most recent loss back in 2008 in India.

So sure, the Spaniard has a right to smile these days, after two straight years in the Semifinals, Nadal is looking to take the next step. Back in 2008 he said he didn’t have the energy after playing so much that summer and lost to Andy Roddick and last year he ran into a steamroller Juan Martin Del Potro.

Now things have changed.

“This year,” he said.  “I think ‑‑ I know how important is the US Open for me right now, and I know I have to arrive to this tournament fresh if I want to have any chance to have a very good result.

“That’s what I tried.  I think I did.  I am at the right round without problems, so that’s very positive?  Right now remains the most difficult thing.”

And yes, you can see it in his eyes.

Spain Takes The Lead In US Open

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Rafael Nadal was an avid soccer player growing up in Mallorca and traveled to South Africa to watch Spain win its World Cup earlier this summer. But these days the top-seeded Spaniard just can’t quite kick a hard habit. Winning is addictive and Nadal is hopelessly hooked in leading a Spanish Imposition at the US Open.

The top quarter of the US Open draw is saturated in Spanish colors, ensuring at least one Spanish semifinalist.

Nadal sent new father Gilles Simon headed for the next plane to Paris to meet his newborn baby in pounding out a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory to storm into a US Open fourth round showdown against sometime Davis Cup teammate Feliciano Lopez.

Spanish men set a Grand Slam Open Era record with nine players reaching the third round.

Fernando Verdasco and Lopez partnered to send Spain to the 2008 Davis Cup championship and the lefthanders flicked their respective wrists in scripting Spain’s stamp on this US Open. Verdasco diffused David Nalbandian, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 on the Grandstand court and Lopez followed on the same stage, holding a 6-3, 4-0 lead when Sergiy Stakhovsky retired from their match.

Verdasco will face David Ferrer, a 7-6(2), 6-2, 6-2 winner over Daniel Gimeno-Traver, for a place in the quarterfinals. Verdasco has won six of 10 meetings with Ferrer with nine of those encounters coming on clay. Ferrer won their only hard-court meeting six years ago in Chennai. Playing for a trip to his second straight US Open quarterfinal, Verdasco takes on a capable opponent in the 10th-seeded Ferrer, who knocked Nadal out of the Open in the 2007 round of 16.

“It’s always nice to see all the Spanish winning and being in the last rounds, no?” Verdasco said  “So if you need to lose, it’s better to lose against a Spanish player, then at least one guy is gonna be there one round more, no? I’m happy.  I hope to play good also the next round, keep doing my work and my job as better as possible.  Trying to play the best to be in the quarterfinals like last year.”

Twenty years ago, the Spanish Armada sailed primarily on the red clay seas, but Spanish men have conquered all surfaces now.

“It’s kind of surprising to have so many players in the fourth round,” said Lopez after snapping Stakhovsky’s seven match winning streak. “What can I say about Spanish tennis? It’s always there. And since 15-20 years ago we are winning almost everything, no? Before we were the best on clay. Now we win on grass, on everywhere no? So it’s gonna be one time that his is gonna be over and the people will have to accept.”

Continuing his quest to complete the career Grand Slam, Nadal produced another impressive serving performance in winning 39 of 43 points played on his first serve (91 percent), smacking a 135 mph serve and erasing the only break point he faced.

Nadal has not dropped a set or surrendered serve in three tournament victories and will be primed and pumped to avenge his Queen’s Club loss to Lopez when they square off on Tuesday.

The Spanish players dine together, practice together and hold court in the same corner of the locker room and will share the court again as Verdasco plays David Ferrer with the winner meeting the Nadal-Lopez winner in the quarterfinals.

“We practice more with the Spanish players because they are friends and it’s easier for us to get in touch with them and to call them for practice or whatever because we are almost together every day and we go for dinner,” Lopez said.

Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.