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. (thanks, U.S. Open late-night matches!). 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. It’s always something! In 2007, banged-up knees. In 200
8, 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”).
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,” Ms. 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! Ha-ha! 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. (He has an adorable smile.)
But can he win here, even without the crowd necessarily behind him?
“Yeah, eventually, yeah,” Mr. Wertheim said. “I don’t think he’s ever going to tell us about the great smoked fish he had at Russ & Daughters and the great runs in Central Park, but Barney Greengrass can wait. Tennis-wise? It’ll click.”
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,” Ms. Carillo put in. “Remember when he wins at the Open in ’78?”
Actually, we weren’t even born then, but go on, Mary!
“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.