Nadal seeks elusive silver
New York - Rafa Nadal lacks one item to complete the changing of the guard in world tennis and the Spaniard could sew that up during his visit to New York City for the U.S. Open.
Top-seeded Nadal has overtaken Roger Federer as world number one and major championship favourite, and shown he can cut it on the grass by winning his second Wimbledon this year.
Now the stage is set for the heavy-hitting Mallorcan to lift the one major missing from his collection and prove he is a man for all seasons and courts by adding to his five French, two Wimbledons and Australian title for a career grand slam.
But Nadal, 24, has never reached the final of the bruising hardcourt test in Flushing Meadows, too often worn out by the last grand slam of the season to thrive on the fast, rubberised concrete courts that have tested his troublesome knees.
Fit, well rested, hungry and armed with an improved volley to better shorten points, the left-hander looks poised for a breakthrough that could sweetly come in an Arthur Ashe Stadium finale against the second-seeded Federer.
"I am perfect mentally," French and Wimbledon champion Nadal, winner of five events this year, said when he started his hardcourt build-up this month for an assault on the Open.
However, 29-year-old Federer is not about to hand the keys to New York over to Nadal without a fight.
The Swiss master, whose string of five successive U.S. Open titles ended in a five-set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in last year's final, revved his engines for another Flushing Meadows campaign by winning the run-up event in Cincinnati after reaching the final in Toronto.
"Unfortunately we hardly ever get a chance to play here in the States where conditions maybe suit me more," Federer told reporters about getting a chance to cut into Nadal's 14-7 career head-to-head lead over him.
The men's tournament at the National Tennis Centre, of course, is not a two-man affair.
Third seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia looms as a possible semifinals hurdle for Federer, while fourth-seeded, in-form Briton Andy Murray could block Nadal's path to the final.
"I guess the top four have the best shot again, naturally," said 2010 Australian Open winner Federer, who will be gunning to extend his record to 16 grand slam crowns.
Del Potro will not be on hand to defend due to a wrist injury, but competition should be intense on the men's side.
"We can all play really well on the hardcourts. Murray has proven himself, so has Djokovic and so has Rafa. He's won the Australian Open," noted Federer. "Maybe the U.S. Open is a bit faster, so you figure Rafa will struggle a bit more."
While Djokovic has been battling health issues that might slow him down at the Open, Murray should have an added bounce to his step after beating Nadal and Federer to win in Toronto.
Murray, 23, is striving to become the first Briton to claim a grand slam crown since Fred Perry won the 1936 U.S. title.
Two other players banging on the grand slam door are Robin Soderling of Sweden and Czech Tomas Berdych.
Fifth-seeded Soderling knocked out defending champions Federer and Nadal in the last two French Opens, while seventh seed Berdych was a Wimbledon finalist after reaching the French semifinals.
An "X" factor at the noisy National Tennis Center that houses the year's final slam could come from home crowd favourites including 2003 winner Andy Roddick (seeded ninth), John Isner (18), Mardy Fish (19) and Sam Querrey (20).