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Prince of Hard Court Nadal Primed for Open

NEW YORK - The King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, has suddenly morphed into the Prince of the Hard Courts in 2013 as the 27-year-old Spaniard has yet to drop a match this year on his previously least-favorite surface. His recent - and rare – completion of the summer Master’s double (Montreal and Cincinnati) is testament that he is the hottest player in the world heading into the US Open, which starts on Monday.

Will this translate into his second US Open title? Most likely, yes, though he does have a tricky road to the semis. But Nadal’s draw is nowhere near as difficult as what's facing four-time finalist Novak Djokovic, whose path to the championship is downright unfair.

The first anticipated question before the draw was revealed was – who will get the “easier” Ferrer in the semis? The second was – who will get Roger Federer in the quarters. The answer to both these questions is Nadal.

Throughout their historic and incandescent rivalry (however one-sided it’s been the last few years in Nadal’s favor) Nadal and Federer have met five times at the French Open, on three occasions at Wimbledon and twice at the Australian Open – eight of these 10 meetings have been finals. Yet their rivalry, arguably one of the two or three best the sport has witnessed, has never been showcased in Flushing Meadows. But this year it may finally happen, with the two on course to meet in the quarterfinals.

Federer’s path to the quarters is so obstacle-free that he couldn’t have asked for a better draw. But Nadal will likely have to tame the intimidating service power of John Isner (whom he defeated in the Cincinnati final last Sunday) in the fourth round. Isner can give Nadal – or anyone – fits with this titanic serves but Nadal has yet to lose to Isner in four matches. Additionally, Isner’s game is not as suited to three-of-five set matches as he often tires.

So does Federer stand a chance of beating Nadal in a Slam for the first time since 2007? While it would be idiotic and insulting to the most prolific Slam winner in history to rule out his chances of upsetting Nadal, it would take a Herculean effort. While Federer stayed with Nadal for the better part of two sets when the two met in the quarterfinal round in Cincinnati, defeating Nadal over five sets is another story altogether.

One thing Federer would have going in his favor if he were to play Nadal is that this would undoubtedly be a nocturnal encounter with the crowd likely heavily in favor of Federer. And Federer thrives under such circumstances – he’s 23-1 under the lights in New York, his sole defeat coming last year to Tomas Berdych. Additionally, it will be Nadal who will likely feel pressure as the favorite.

But it’s hard to pick against Nadal considering his recent dominance over Federer, combined with his renewed confidence on hard courts. Whatever the case, if the two do in fact meet in the quarterfinals, it will undoubtedly be an electric affair.

Who would await Nadal in the semis? If the draw were to hold to form, it would be David Ferrer, who Nadal demolished in the finals of the French Open back in June. And though it’s easy to not take Ferrer as a serious threat for the title, he is still the fourth-ranked player in the world and he’s a superb hard-court player. This is clearly the most wide-open quarter of the draw and the path is cleared for one of the hard-serving players to sneak through – Milos Raonic or Jerzy Janowicz.

For Djokovic, the four-time finalist and 2011 US Open champion, the draw is so difficult that it’s actually a worst-case scenario; he’d have to play Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Andy Murray in the semis and perhaps Nadal in the final. While Djokovic owns winning records against both Murray and Del Potro, playing both back-to-back would be exhausting. Del Potro and Djokovic played perhaps the match of the year at Wimbledon this summer and Murray of course won Wimbledon over Djokovic. Additionally, Djokovic has a potentially difficult third-round match against Grigor Dmitrov, the man who many think represents the future of the sport.

If Djokovic were to make it all the way to the final and play Nadal it would clearly cement them, again, as clearly the two best players in the world. Such an encounter would be welcome by all fans as the duo seem to never play a boring match.

Rounding out the draw is Andy Murray’s quarter. Murray has definitely been on relax mode ever since taking the Wimbledon title, making history as the first Brit to accomplish that in nearly 80 years. But I look for Murray to be much sharper in New York. His first few rounds should pose no problems but he is scheduled to meet Berdych in the quarters and Berdych holds a 6-4 advantage head-to-head.

Of course, draws rarely play out as anticipated. Yet one thing is certain – this looks to be the most tightly contested US Open in quite some time.

Predictions -

Semifinals: Nadal d. Raonic, Murray d. Djokovic

Final: Nadal d. Murray

 

Notes: It bears reminding fans that the men’s final will be played on Monday, Sept. 9 at 5 p.m. The USTA’s all-too-frantic decision to schedule the final this way, in the wake of the rainouts the last five years was foolish. While it is a positive step to finally give the men a day off between the semis and finals (the men’s semis will be played on Saturday, with the women’s final on Sunday), it is nonsensical to schedule the final of a Grand Slam on a late weekday afternoon. It robs much of the country of being able to view the match live in its entiertey, especially those on the west coast. I wish CBS would finally have the guts to take on Monday Night Football and air the match at 8 or 9 p.m. … Speaking of CBS, for those customers of Time Warner Cable in certain cities – among them, New York – as of now you won’t be able to see any of CBS’s coverage of the event since the network and the cable giant are still in the midst of a contract dispute. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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