The U.S. Open remains the only Grand Slam that Rafael Nadal hasn't added to his already illustrious resume. Some would have thought that if one major was going to be out of his reach, it would have been Wimbledon, first because of the overwhelming domination of Roger Federer on grass, then because, at first glance, the surface doesn't really seem to suit his game.
But then in 2008, in the manner of a champion, he was able to master his game on grass, technically and tactically. He won when nobody believed he could, perhaps because he made it his ultimate goal to prevail in London.
The U.S. Open is now the only Grand Slam to elude Nadal, so let's get into the reasons why we have to consider his Open career a failure ... for now:
The schedule gives him a tough time
The first half-year is usually a very busy period for the Spaniard. I'm not saying it's not the same for all the other players, but I'm just noticing that Rafa plays and wins way more than most of the others at this period. From April to the end of June, he's getting into an unbelievable winning streak and that means more matches. Judge for yourself: This year, he's been the winner consecutively in Monte Carlo, Roma, Madrid, Roland Garros and then Wimbledon. At the start of July, it's natural that the Mallorcan's tank is simply emptied.
An understandable letdown
It's always tough for any player to build new motivation after having achieved his main goals. But it's what is happening to Rafa. Roland-Garros is his tournament. Wimbledon, his second target of the year. When he wins both back-to-back, he's caught in a letdown, even if he's not fully aware of it. His will and his desire being his best weapons, his efficiency is obviously hampered.
Rafa needs to play a lot to feel his game
After his demanding first part of the year, he takes a well-deserved break to get fresh again and to train for the rest of the season. It means two weeks of training, and then getting the confidence back by playing a lot. Contrary to others, the Spaniard feels the strong necessity of getting many matches under his belt. Those matches make him confident enough, which is the key for him, as he's kind of an anxious player. Plus, it leads him to find his timing and to feel the ball perfectly again. Because of this, Rafa remains more in the "hard workers and tough fighters" category rather than "the gift-is-my-main-tool" category. The Spaniard has never relied on talent only, he knows better.
The U.S. Open comes very fast after his end of training, so Rafa severely lacks rhythm. In comparison, he always got at least three titles in his hands before heading to the French Open. Before Melbourne, he's not able to play a lot but he arrives after five to six weeks of intense physical training where he has found his routine back. All players are in the same situation, of course, so the global quality of play is usually not at the same level during the U.S. Open. In New York, the issue for Rafa is that some players are arriving in great shape and with confidence after the summer whereas he's still searching for his A-game.
The speed of the game is playing against him
You also have to take into account the U.S. Open playing conditions as one of the things that is hurting Nadal's success here. Among the four Grand Slams, the U.S. Open is the fastest one. The combined factor of cement and light balls speed the game up and provide a very low bounce of the balls. The Spaniard loves to dictate the game and loves to get time enough to prepare his ground strokes. That's the way he can play his best game. When he's confronted with opponents who take the ball early and aggressively on the first few shots and work his forehand, Nadal often ends by playing the ball too short. Then he's in danger.
One day, he will succeed in New York
Despite all of those reasons that lead to explain why the U.S. Open is the last Grand Slam that the Spaniard hasn't won, I'm pretty sure he will end up getting a grip on it. First of all, he's such a big competitor and has always achieved what he wanted by hard work and will power. The lack of rhythym shouldn't be a problem as Nadal keeps winning matches in the tournament. He'll find it. It's a best-of-five-sets tournament and I'm convinced that, even without displaying his best game, he'll find his way to victory aided by his amazing physical abilities and his absolute desire of winning. Round after round, he'll get stronger and even if he can't get through Roger Federer this year, he will succeed in one of the forthcoming years.