Astonishing, surprising, outstanding, unfathomable: These are just a few of the adjectives that could describe Rafael Nadal's 2013 season, and each is a technically accurate characterization of what Nadal has accomplished over the last seven months. But there are few terms available that effectively capture the sheer destruction he's been unleashing on the ATP tour this summer. We need a new one -- perhaps "vamosaaahhh," the sound I imagine Nadal's inner monologue plays every time he hits one of those "has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed" forehands that scream up the line before dipping into court with almost enough topspin to alter the earth's axis.
As the ATP's greats move into the last Grand Slam of the year -- the U.S. Open, which begins today in Flushing Meadows, New York -- the man from Mallorca may be the odds-on favorite, but he's not the only contender. Let's not forget about defending champion Andy Murray, who's playing the best tennis of his life; world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the most consistent hard court tennis player of the past three seasons; and the rejuvenated Juan Martin Del Potro -- among others. Below, an assessment of the game's top players (and most dangerous upstarts) and their chances of winning tennis's most raucous major.
Rafael Nadal: The Favorite
Things weren't supposed to unfold this way for Nadal in 2013. When he withdrew from the Australian Open in January, it was easy to foresee a future in which his days as a consequential all-court player were over. A balky knee seemed destined to transform the King of Clay to a clay-court specialist, still dominant on his beloved red dirt but too physically damaged to challenge top players on other surfaces. Media narratives shifted to the budding rivalry between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, confident Nadal would only retain relevance during the spring clay-court circuit.
Perhaps these preconceptions upset Nadal -- you win two Grand Slams and a gold medal on hard courts, yet all of a sudden people are pegging you as unable to compete on that surface? Since rejoining the ATP, Nadal has confounded expectations. He owns a 15-0 record on hard courts this season, including two wins over Roger Federer and one over Djokovic. These days, Nadal swings at the tennis ball with such ferocity one wonders if every backhand passing shot is an opportunity to unleash the pent up anger that comes with constantly being told you're past your prime at 27 years of age.
But what if the opposite is true? What if Nadal is on the verge of a new prime rather than at the tail end of the career we thought had already peaked? Tennis fans have long expected the Nadal's physical style to prematurely end his career, but in our golden age of sports-injury recovery, when Adrian Peterson can rush for 2,000 yards one season after reconstructive knee surgery, it's not unreasonable to consider the possibility that Nadal has beaten his knee troubles. Perhaps he and Uncle Toni have finally found the right balance of play and rest, of aggression and defense. Always a problem solver on the court, with a gift for making subtle yet devastating in-match adjustments, Nadal may have used that mental acuity to solve the one problem that's hampered him since 2009.
In his younger years, Nadal ran around the court in a constant frenzy, never bothering to downshift from fifth gear. The Nadal who emerged on the tour this summer was much more measured, wisely alternating between a grinding defensive style and quicker, more aggressive play. At both Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal surprised spectators by taking the court without the usual preventive wrapping under his left knee. And without exhibiting any signs of soreness at either of those tournaments, he accomplished a career first: Two hard-court championships in consecutive weeks. That doesn't sound like a player in the autumn of his career.
It will take a heroic effort to keep Nadal from winning his second U.S. Open title.
Given Nadal's recent stellar play, it would be illogical to call anyone else the favorite at the U.S. Open. His chances of winning the tournament look even better considering the two players most likely to provide the stiffest challenge are in the other half of the draw and will therefore have to endure another one of their characteristic slugfests before even getting a crack at him. And if Nadal wins this tournament for just the second time in his career, what's stopping him from regaining the No. 1 ranking or accomplishing more career firsts, like a victory at the ATP World Finals?
Where Nadal is in terms of the stages of his career and how many Grand Slam championships titles he can potentially win is impossible to know. What is known is that right now he's the best tennis player in the world, and it will take a heroic effort from one of the following players to wrest the championship away from him.
Andy Murray: The Defending Champ
In a more just world, we might be focusing more of our attention on Murray, the player who last hoisted a trophy at Arthur Ashe stadium.
Murray's been the most consistent player over the past two seasons, making the finals of the last four majors in which he's competed, as well as the Olympics. Detractors looking for reasons to marginalize Murray's chances could point to lackluster results in Montreal and Cincinnati as cause for concern. But that line of thinking doesn't quite hold up when you consider that last year Murray performed just as terribly in those events and then proceeded to win the first Grand Slam of his career.
Under Coach Ivan Lendl's stiff-lipped tutelage, Murray seems to have developed a mental toughness that matches his physical talents. No longer one to wilt in big matches, Murray's movement, wicked backhand slice, and improvisational abilities make him a tough customer on hard courts. Of all the players who don't hail from Mallorca, he has the best chance of winning the tournament.
Novak Djokovic: The World No. 1
Novak Djokovic seems tired every time he takes the the tennis court these days. He looks like he's lost some weight. Even his ground strokes appear to have lost some zip. He's the Atlas of the ATP: The weight of the world, or in his case the pressure of being No. 1, sits upon his shoulders, and he's starting to show some signs of fatigue.