Saturday 25 November 2017

Tennis: Nadal in rude health to finally break America

Mark Hodgkinson in New York

The Joe Six-Packs of New Jersey or Milwaukee tend to follow the US Open in the same way they do the American football season -- not tuning in until the blimps are in the sky.

For many of the channel-flicking Americans, the NFL season starts with the Super Bowl and this fortnight at Flushing Meadows begins on the second Sunday. That is why Rafael Nadal, for all his achievements across the tennis map, does not have the following in the US that he does everywhere else he hits whippy forehands.

For the Ordinary Joes of America to truly care about this young man from the Mediterranean -- to bother themselves with the world No 1 -- they first have to see him play, in which case he is going to have to reach his first final. And then he is going to have to win it.

Though Nadal's training sessions here have as many ground-pass-holders pressed up against the wire as Roger Federer's, those gathered around his practice court are already a bunch of racket-heads.

The rest of America is not so fussed about a Majorcan who has already won eight Grand Slam titles, with five victories at the French Open, a couple at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open, and who, after playing superb tennis to reach the quarter-finals in New York, looks better placed than ever to become only the seventh man to accomplish the career Grand Slam.

What an achievement that would be for Nadal to complete his collection at the age of 24, especially as it took Federer until he was 27 to do it.

Only in America would they wait until a tennis player has achieved the career Grand Slam, and won a ninth major championship, before taking an interest.

It seems as though some New Yorkers would prefer it if Nadal sounded more enamoured with the city. Clearly, Nadal is happier playing in Europe than competing in the chaos of New York.

Some players go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with the locals, talking about the pleasures of playing in front of "the best crowd in the world", at "the best tournament in the world", and what a joy it is to skip by the neon lights of Times Square.

Nadal does not always go in for that crowd-pleasing, crowd-tickling stuff here, which is extremely refreshing. But that is not the main reason America has not taken to him yet; it all comes down to the fact that he has never been beyond the semis.


Nadal, who today plays fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in the quarter-finals, dominated the European summer, winning on the clay of Roland Garros and the grass of the All England Club. Fast American cement plainly is not the best surface for Nadal, but it would seem as though there is every chance this could turn out to be the summer when Rafa breaks America.

A couple of years ago here, he was exhausted after winning gold in Beijing as well as the French Open and Wimbledon, and he was not himself during his semi-final defeat to Andy Murray.

Last summer, he was carrying an abdominal injury in his semi, and could not counter the power of Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro. This year, to echo what one former American player said of Nadal, he is not banged up as in years past.

Dressed all in black for his night matches, Nadal played magnificently to win a fourth-round match with countryman Feliciano Lopez and is yet to drop a set, or his serve, during this tournament.

While Nadal should be fairly fresh, Verdasco must be fraying around the edges after coming from two sets down against David Ferrer to win the fifth in a tie-break. If Nadal progresses into the 'Super Saturday' semi-finals, he would 'only' have to beat Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka or Russian Mikhail Youzhny to reach his first final, when America would be watching. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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