Rafa Nadal is, undeniably, the man to beat coming into this year’s US Open.
He’s 53-3 on the year with 9 titles, and additional appearances in 2 other finals. He’s won 5 Masters Series titles, 3 of them on hard courts at Indian Wells, Montreal, and Cincinnati. The last two represent the rare summer double that’s only been done three other times, and not since 2003.
Moreover, Rafa looks poised to – fingers crossed – earn enough points to eventually end the year in the top spot ahead of Novak Djokovic.
That said, this year’s US Open is going to be a tough task for the Spaniard. He’s already defied the odds with his superhuman results upon a return to the tour from a 7-month injury hiatus, but winning a second title in New York simply isn’t realistic from this particular hard court Slam.
The “best of five” format isn’t necessarily the issue, because Rafa’s one of the best at grinding down his opponents over the course of a 3-5 set match. This is especially true on clay, where his natural affinity for movement on the surface allows him tactical options that few can overcome point after point, and set after set.
Hard courts are an altogether different animal. Rafa’s an excellent athlete, so he’s always going to do well no matter the surface. But his style of play requires more from his legs on hard courts, and generally exacts a greater toll on his knees. Even if he’s successful at grinding his opponents, he’s wearing out his own legs over the long haul.
The Australian Open isn’t as tough for Rafa because he goes into it fairly fresh, and then takes an extended break afterward. The effects aren’t cumulative. But that’s not the case with the US Open, and its’ late summer placement on the calendar. So Rafa does his best to schedule accordingly.
He played Indian Wells, but skipped Miami in order to rest his knees before the start of the clay season. After winning in Montreal, many were surprised that Rafa decided to play Cincinnati instead of giving his knees an additional week of rest. Perhaps he (rightly) figured that the additional match practice and ranking points gained were too good to pass up.
The gamble paid off. Rafa tested himself against the best, played exceptional tennis on the big points, and picked up 1000 ranking points and a nice chunk of change. However, I couldn’t help but notice some worrisome off-court maneuverings; like taking the stairs one at a time up to the podium for his post-match press conferences.
That’s not what you want to see from the US Open frontrunner ahead of a tournament that’s notorious for tough conditions, and a knack for rain that, in previous years, has led Rafa to play on consecutive days in the later rounds.
There’s also the issue of Rafa’s tricky road to the finals. He could potentially play a third-round match against Verdasco, a fourth round match against Isner, a quarterfinal with Federer, a semifinal against Ferrer, and a final against either Murray or Djokovic.
Verdasco’s not the same man that played Rafa in a 5 hour/5 set semifinal loss at the 2009 Australian Open, but he can still make Rafa play a tough, physical match. Isner’s 7-6 7-6 loss to Rafa in the Cincy final came without a break of serve. Rafa also defeated Roger in Cincy, but only after a second set comeback.
The stakes get higher in the semis and final. Ferrer has beaten Rafa on hard courts in the 2011 Australian Open with aggressive play, Murray is the defending champion, and there’s always the ultimate challenge of beating Djokovic in a “best of five” final.
All of these matches could be problematic if the schedule gets backed up due to rain. And what about Janowicz  and Gulbis , the two legitimate dark horses in Rafa’s half of the draw? Like Isner, each has a game that’s big enough to take the outcome out of Rafa’s hands. (Whether or not they can get through for that match-up is a separate discussion.)
The particular opponent, however, isn’t as important as the fact that I can’t see him grinding through all of these tough matches and, in the end, feeling good enough physically to win against Andy or Novak.
I can’t tell you who WILL win the title, but I can tell you that it probably won’t be Rafa. He’ll gain points in his quest for the number one ranking, but that’s all. More than any one of his opponents, the grind of the Open will be his downfall.
But I’d love for him to prove me wrong!