Rally Round Nadal, Boys

Why has the world’s top-ranked tennis player never won a U.S. Open?

At last year’s U.S. Open, we saw a glimpse of the future: Roger Federer finally losing his grip on the tournament he’s owned for the past seven years (crumbling to the languid, loose-limbed 20-year-old Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro). It wasn’t easy to watch. King Roger, now 29, has been New York’s adopted son. We’ve been happy to claim him—with Anna Wintour by his side, his two-week residence at the Carlyle, his trips to Oscar de la Renta shows and that shiny, sleek Swiss hair—as our own. This is a man who can sell a luxury watch!

But Federer has won only once since his triumph at the Australian Open earlier this year, and we’ve got few other places to turn. Forget women’s tennis. Without Serena Williams—who’s been moonlighting as a manicurist and will miss the Open due to a mysterious foot injury involving glass—that’s a wasteland. As for the men, the glory days of McEnroe, Connors and Agassi-Sampras are long over. For the first time ever, for a few weeks this summer, there were no American men ranked in the top 10.

Nope, we’ve got little choice but to start rallying behind the guy who has never won here before: that brooding and brutal 24-year old Spaniard, Rafael Nadal. Rafa is coming in healthy; he’s got both the Wimbledon and the French Open in the bag this year—which puts him at eight Grand Slam victories, three more than Federer had at the same point in his career—he has a compelling, counterpunching game; and he’s the world’s best right now. He seems due.

But while Rafa offers all the stuff that makes him the obvious new favorite—his No. 1 ranking, his relentless tenacity, his muscular frame—there’s something about that makes him so, well, Na-Dull.

He’s never made it to a men’s final here. He’s never brought the passion he’s displayed in other tournaments. He always seems to arrive in Flushing either hurt or exhausted. It’s questionable how much he even likes New York. Instead of having dinners with Robert De Niro or making trips to Le Bernardin, Nadal has been known to take his days off in New York and quietly head to the ESPN Zone to nosh on some chicken fingers while watching the European soccer league. In lieu of royalty or the requisite celebrity quotient, Nadal’s player’s box at Arthur Ashe usually consists of a coterie of publicists, friends from Spain and that deadly serious Uncle Tony. Even his girlfriend—Maria Francisca “Xisca” Perello—keeps such a low profile that it’s hard not to yearn for Boris Becker’s gorgeous ex-wife, Barbara Feltus.

It’s hard to explain why we’ve never taken to Rafa, or why he’s never seemed to have taken to us. Maybe it’s the language barrier, maybe it’s the injuries, maybe it’s the low expectations that he’ll win—but there never seems to be any buzz around him.

“Globally, he’s huge. He’s adored,” said Jon Wertheim, the Sports Illustrated tennis writer who wrote a book about Nadal’s victory in the 2008 Wimbledon over Roger Federer, titled Strokes of Genius (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). “But you get here and people are like: ‘What’s the big deal?’”

Every year, reporters convene in Queens and ask the softballs that make for good curtain-raising copy: Why do you love New York and the Open? Veterans such as Federer know how to play it. Even Scottish-born Andy Murray, a hometown hero at Wimbledon, has called the Open his favorite tourney.

But Rafa rarely takes the bait. Last year, when a reporter asked Rafa what it would mean to win here, he shrugged: “For me, have the title here doesn’t change my career.” He said that winning the Open would be an important milestone—that means he’ll have all four Grand Slams—but he has referred to it, somewhat dismissively, as “another Grand Slam.” Three years ago, when asked to rattle off the things he loved about the Open, he mentioned a renovated men’s locker room. And when he was asked whether he preferred a small town or a big city, he said, “I prefer the same like always. I prefer be at home with the family, with the friends, my closer friends. I know my friends from the school. So I am very, very happy living in Mallorca. Is a very nice place, very quiet place.”

While lots of tennis players have shown some cosmopolitan interests—think of McEnroe (art!), Serena (fashion!)—Rafa has said that when his career is over, he’d like to buy a “normal-sized boat” so he can “go fishing in the sea.” A cosmopolitan lifestyle this is not! “Players always come in and talk about how they went to Barneys and Nobu, and people love that,” Wertheim said. “But when [Rafa] says he’s doing nothing special, maybe get some room service and have a light hitting session? This is not a guy who gives a shit about Fashion Week or meeting Wintour.”

That would be fine, of course—if he’d ever won here. Although Rafa has chewed up the other Grand Slams, and is quickly entering the “Greatest of All Time” conversation, right up there with Federer, he hasn’t been able to master the tempo of the blue courts of Queens. Despite the fact that he’s made the semifinals each of the past two years, his performance in each of those semifinal matches has been oddly lifeless. Commentators rarely even float the possibility of a Rafa-Roger final, which is a surprise considering it might be the best sports rivalry of our time.

“Rafa’s never played his best tennis in New York,” said Mary Carillo, the former player and tennis analyst who does work for CBS, HBO, NBC and ESPN. “Those courts are too fast for him.”

Rafa has won on hard courts before, but Carillo points out that it’s a different game here. The courts are, simply, much faster at the Open.

“The big problem for Rafa is the big boys can knock him off a fast hard court,” she said. (Nadal is 6 feet 1 inch.) “A guy who is 6-4 or 6-5 and who has a two-handed backhand especially can just take that stuff and fire it back at him and hurt him. And hurt him early on. See, what makes him so tough on clay is you can’t hurt him early in a point and the longer and more protracted the rally the more he’s gotcha. On grass, Rafa’s serve is really wicked. It’s the lefty serve, and he knows how to spin it. The grass takes his speed and adds more to it. A fast hard court, it’s … It was hard for Borg to win a fast hard court, and it’ll be hard for Rafa.”

Moreover, Carillo added: “New Yorkers want a show.”

It’s not like Nadal’s performances here have lacked for possible theatrics. In 2007, he lost in the fourth round to David Ferrer at the ungodly hour of 2 a.m. But for the past two years, he’s arguably been screwed by the schedule. His second-week matches have been delayed by rain, forcing him to play the same match over the course of a few days in front of small, awkward crowds.

And then there are the injuries. In 2007, banged-up knees. In 2008, mental exhaustion after playing a full schedule and winning gold in Beijing at the Olympics. Last year, an abdominal tear (which Nadal referred to, hilariously, as “I broked my abdominal”). Aww, why doesn’t he just Nupe it, like Jimmy Connors?!

For all that’s held Nadal back in the past, there are plenty of reasons to believe that he’s due to hoist the Open trophy, and that this is the year. For one thing, he is relentless. Early on in his career, he looked like yet another Spanish clay-court specialist who could do little else. Then he became the best clay court player ever. Then he began to crack the grass at Wimbledon, where he has won twice. He began to figure out the hard court in Australia and won last year. You can feel an inner steel—unlike the similarly mild-mannered Bjorn Borg, who finished his career without a victory here.

“In a way, he’s Connors-like,” Carillo said. “He tries to win every single point he’s a piece of. Every single point! I gotta think if he really gets on a run, the New York fans are going to like that. They like someone who is willing to throw themselves around and grind and burn. I agree with you he’s never shown his best stuff in New York. But I don’t think he’s like Borg, who just didn’t like the chaos of New York. Borg never really warmed up to the noise and the traffic and the airplanes and the blimps! That did not fit his personality and his sensibility. I think Rafa wants to be good everywhere.”

There is hope! After the French ended this year, Rafa told NBC, “See you in the U.S. Open! Because it is the one that remains for me, and I have special motivation for that.” And he smiled.

And when you consider that Federer might be on his last legs, and the second tier of players—Murray, Djokovic, Roddick—aren’t even close to cracking through to the top (and that last year’s champion, del Potro, is not playing due to an injury), we might as well hand over our support to Rafa as fast as we can.

After all, the options are few.

“It took New Yorkers a while to like Connors,” Carillo said. “Remember when he wins at the Open in ’78? He has that great speech, ’cause he was a never a fan favorite, really, at Forest Hills, and he comes and wins and”—now her voiced turned hoarse—“says, ‘You may not like me, but I like you!’ And from there on out, he owned the joint! He owned it!” So give us a roar, Rafa! Give us a reason to cheer, and we’ll be right behind you.

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