My next day reaction to Rafael Nadal's loss to James Blake at the Open is surprise—not surprise that Blake beat him, but surprise that Nadal more-or-less admitted that his heart wasn’t fully into the tournament.
After the match, Nadal at one point said:
. . . I say I am not playing good this week. Today, I begin the match with confidence, with ambition. But when I—when the match come down to the third set, of course, I return a little bit back my confidence, my confidence of the last days.
Translation: I’m tired, I started well, I ran out of gas.
Nadal certainly has had a great year. He’s got all kinds of reasons to feel tired. But the bottom line is that this was a huge opportunity for him. A win here gives him two Grand Slam titles for the year, and a legitimate claim to the proverbial year-end No. 1.
Call me crazy, but I believe that if you’re the only one to win two majors (or more), only truly exceptional circumstances (things other than computer ranking/race points) would justify giving it to someone else. In this case, of course, that someone else is Roger Federer.
Ubaldo Scanagatta, whom I wrote about in a post below ("They’re All Ova the Place"), told me that the Spanish players tipped him off on the fact that Nadal could have lost to Blake well before the match; they said Nadal had been complaining about how tired he was, and feeling less than enthusiastic about a potential two-week slog in Flushing Meadows.
I’m not challenging Nadal’s integrity or his appetite for combat (do I look nuts, or merely read like I am?). For one thing, I don’t want to take any credit away from Blake’s great win (see below). For another, Nadal is green; he’s just as entitled to making freshman mistakes or miscalculations as were Andre Agassi (didn’t think Wimbledon was “worth playing” for a few years), or Bjorn Borg (couldn’t handle the heat and noise—and lights—of Flushing Meadows).
But you just can't show up for a Grand Slam "tired." No way, no how.
Also, it’s about time one of the European dustbusters stepped up and brought a lot of game to the hard court season, and especially to the U.S. Open. Sure, Alex Corretja had his moments here in North American, winning a number of titles, including the Indian Wells Masters.
But the emerging pattern is that the clay-court specialists fade as the year goes on. Gustavo Kuerten, Guillermo Coria, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Marian Puerta, et al. simply haven’t dented the draw—or public consciousness—in New York.
Borg, though, had some great tournaments here (although he never won) and Ivan Lendl, a doomsday stroking machine at Roland Garros (three titles) also reached the final a mind-boggling eight years in a row here at the National Tennis Center.
It would be great for the game if Nadal ends up bucking the trend and, with greater perspective and experience, and savvy scheduling, ends up becoming a perennial contender here in New York.
Besides, TennisWorld needs the Federer-Nadal rivalry, and at this point you have to yield grass (Wimbledon) to the Mighty Fed, and give Nadal the edge on clay.
The key to dominating the geopolitics of tennis in the near future will be hard-court performance, but we don't know yet if anyone has an appetite for domination to match Federer's.