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Sunday, July 4, 2010
Career Slam now the goal for Nadal

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Champagne was being poured on the players' terrace as Rafael Nadal's family celebrated his latest Wimbledon victory, but the chatter elsewhere was already turning to what might be to come.

The Spaniard's convincing three-set win over Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon final Sunday only served to underline the dominance he has established over the men's tour in the past three months, going 31-1 while sweeping the big clay-court events and winning the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back. It's reminiscent of the results he recorded in 2008 and early 2009, winning the French Open, Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Australian Open before knee injuries and family problems derailed him for the rest of last year.

The rest of the summer stretches ahead on American hard courts, the one patch of territory he has yet to completely conquer. Can he now finally win the U.S. Open, the one Grand Slam still missing from his collection?

"For sure, [I'll] keep working to try to be in the U.S. Open, finally ready to try to win," Nadal said.

First things first, though. "Right now, it's enjoy the beach, fishing, golf, friends, party and Mallorca."

But it won't be all sangria by the sea for Nadal. He will spend part of the week undergoing another round of treatment on his knees to prepare them for the pounding they will receive on hard courts the next couple of months. That also means he'll miss Spain's Davis Cup quarterfinal against France next weekend.

Nadal felt some twinges in his knee during his third-round match against Philipp Petzschner but reported no issues the rest of the way.

"With the new treatment, the left knee works perfect," he said. "So when I [go in] to do that to the right, hopefully that's going to be the same."

Spanish papers have reported that the procedure appears to be platelet-rich therapy (PRT), in which the person's own blood is taken and spun in a machine and the concentrated blood is then injected back into the injured area. Nadal has not discussed it directly but said that it was a "painful treatment" that is "applied directly to the tendon." This is an important detail because that is a part of the body where PRT is permissible under anti-doping rules.

James Blake underwent the same therapy for his injured knee earlier this year, although WTA player Tamira Paszek was briefly investigated for undergoing a variation of the procedure on her back last year.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal needs only the U.S. Open crown to achieve the career Grand Slam.

If Nadal stays healthy, there's little doubt he will be a top contender for the U.S. Open. At age 24, he has taken eight Grand Slam titles -- halfway to Federer's record of 16 -- and although five have been on his beloved clay, three have come on faster surfaces. He also won the Olympics and Toronto Masters twice, both of which have high-level fields and are played on the same surface as the U.S. Open.

"When he wins the tournament here in Wimbledon, he can win the U.S. Open," Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, always circumspect, told ESPN.com. "But it's very difficult."

"Definitely has a good chance," said Bjorn Borg, who was the last player before Nadal to complete the French Open-Wimbledon doubles but who never managed to win the U.S. Open.

"He looks even stronger, he's serving better, confidence is 100 percent.

"Every point he plays like match point, and that makes a champion."

But that intensity also takes a toll. Nadal's biggest challenge has been getting to the year's final major in one piece. A few weeks of running around on the unforgiving concrete, combined with the cumulative impact of seven months of play into the season, and Nadal's body almost invariably has been breaking down by the time he hits the homestretch at Flushing Meadows.

In 2007, as the clock ticked past midnight in his fourth-round match against David Ferrer at the Open, Nadal memorably sat down on the court to rest his aching knees. He lost in five sets. In 2008, he went 43-1 between May and August before hitting the wall against Andy Murray in the semifinals. Last year, shortly after returning from the injury layoff that forced him to miss Wimbledon, Nadal hurt his abdominal muscle just before the U.S. Open and went down meekly to eventual champ Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals.

But he also has learned from those experiences. Nadal is playing more sparingly this season and trying to save wear and wear on his body by playing more aggressively in matches. Once prepared to stay well behind the baseline and run all day, he now stands closer to the court and tries to dominate points from the outset, particularly with his giant whip of a forehand. His serve also has been solidified over the years and has become quite a respectable weapon, as evidenced throughout the European Grand Slams.

"For me, the level for Rafael now is very high," Toni Nadal said. "The same level as 2008, or a little better because his serve is now better.

"I think he's playing very aggressive. Not today with the backhand because he had some problems, but today he play very good with the forehand. But against [Robin] Soderling and [Andy] Murray [in the previous two rounds], he was good with the backhand."

But there will also be plenty of challengers looking to break Nadal's recent stranglehold at the big events. Roger Federer, wounded in quarterfinal losses at the French and Wimbledon, is expected to be hungry and dangerous. Novak Djokovic, now up to No. 2 in the rankings, surpassed expectations by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals and will be a constant threat if his breathing problems can be kept under control. Murray, also a semifinalist, has excelled in this part of the season.

Big hitters Soderling and Berdych have reached the finals of the past two majors and could blast their way through more draws this season. Nikolay Davydenko, who began the year in brilliant fashion, is back after wrist problems, although defending U.S. Open champ del Potro continues to be sidelined after his wrist surgery. Andy Roddick will be hoping to resurrect himself on hard courts after a crushing fourth-round defeat at Wimbledon, leading an American contingent that includes a rejuvenated Sam Querrey and marathon man John Isner.

But after this fortnight, Nadal will begin as the man to beat.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.