COMMENTARY | If past evidence means anything, then Rafael Nadal holds an enviable position heading into the US Open this year at Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
On Aug. 18, Rafael Nadal completed a rare double in men's professional tennis when he won the Western and Southern Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati only a week after winning the Canada Masters 1000 in Montreal.
Nadal's back-to-back triumphs at the two events made him only the seventh male player in history to accomplish this feat since both tournaments were incorporated around the end of the 19th century.
In more modern context, Nadal is the fourth player to win both trophies consecutively since each tournament switched to hard court in 1979. The others to do so since that time are Andre Agassi (1995), Patrick Rafter (1998), and Andy Roddick (2003). Eddie Dibbs is the only other player to accomplish this feat during the Open Era, but did so in 1978 when both events were played on clay.
Rafa will likely take some comfort in the fact that all three of the former players to achieve the double on hard courts made it to the finals of the ensuing US Open. Two of those three players (Rafter, Roddick) went on to win the championship, while Andre Agassi succumbed to Pete Sampras.
The dominance Rafa has exhibited on blue cement during the last couple weeks combined with relevant statistical history should officially install Nadal as the odds-on favorite at the US Open.
That could mean fans of the sport might soon be treated to another installment of the always-compelling Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic rivalry. By taking the title on Sunday, Nadal grabbed the world's No. 2 ranking and is guaranteed a place on the opposite half of the draw as Djokovic.
In Cincinnati, the Spaniard demonstrated the same aggressive style seen earlier this spring when he won the ATP Masters 1000 tournament on hard court in Indian Wells, Calif. Playing against Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych, and John Isner in the last three rounds, Nadal employed an extremely efficient serve along with a three-pronged strategy from the baseline.
On defense, Nadal routinely utilized a slice backhand to get himself into a more neutral-court position vis-a-vis his opponents. Then, using movement and footwork reminiscent of earlier years, Nadal attacked mercilessly with his forehand.
This included a propensity to run around his backhand on any ball that arrived with less than average pace.
The third component of Nadal's strategy was an effective two-handed, topspin backhand return of serve. Particularly when receiving his opponent's second offering, Nadal stepped in and hit crisp, aggressive strokes that were more attack-orientated than his high-percentage approach on clay.
Nadal's trademark pattern of play was, of course, also on display -- spin-laden balls falling deeper and deeper into the backhand side of his right-handed opponent's court, followed quickly by a vicious forehand winner into the open space.
During the final, John Isner acquitted himself very well and didn't yield a single break-point opportunity to the Spaniard in the entire match. Nadal's extensive past experience and growing confidence were likely the difference in a razor-thin match that was decided in two tiebreakers.
The takeaways from the tournament were many and not least of all Nadal's undefeated mark on blue hard courts in 2013.
However, the rise of John Isner and his excellent showing in Cincinnati cannot be ignored. After beating Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and then Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, Isner should be a real factor in whichever quarter of the draw he is placed at the Open.
Rafa's resurgence on a surface outside of clay is another factor that cannot be ignored. With three out of four Masters 1000 titles on hard court in 2013, the many critics hoping to pigeon-hole the balance of Nadal's career on red clay are likely beating a hasty retreat.
With two more Masters 1000 tournaments scheduled after the US Open, Nadal could set the new mark of six Masters 1000 titles in a single season by winning in either Paris or Shanghai. The event in Paris, along with Miami, are the only two Masters 1000 locations in which Mr. Nadal hasn't yet hoisted the winner's trophy.
For now, however, New York city will be the focus of the tennis universe and Rafa will arrive with heavy expectations after such a blistering summer. The question now is whether or not he can fulfill them.
Andrew Prochnow is a derivatives trader by day and a tennis buff by night. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewProchnow.
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