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Monday, August 26, 2013
How bad knees made Rafa unbeatable

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The last time we saw Rafael Nadal on a major stage, he was limping away from the All England Club in the first round -- his worst-ever performance in nine Wimbledon tournaments.

The friction in his historically tender knees had flared up again and the tennis world wondered if we were looking at another seven-month sabbatical and, some mused aloud, the end of Rafa's hard-court career.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal improved to 16-0 on hard courts this season with his opening-round win at the US Open.
Not to worry. Five points into his 2013 US Open, Nadal hit a thunderous -- and fairly ridiculous -- running overhead from past the doubles alley for a winner. It's a shot that is almost technically impossible from where he was on the court, considering the speed he was running and the direction in which he was headed.

In the past month or so, the 27-year-old Spaniard has authored yet another spectacular comeback. After Monday's first-round victory over young American Ryan Harrison (the score was 6-4, 6-2, 6-2) Nadal is still perfect for the season on hard courts with a 16-0 mark. The record says this Grand Slam is the most difficult for Nadal to win. It comes at the end of the year, after a busy schedule, and used to require semifinal and final matches on consecutive days. Rafa won here in 2010, his stellar three-Slam season, but after losing in the 2011 final to Novak Djokovic was forced to skip last year's event.

But those bad knees have had an unanticipated effect on Nadal's game this summer. They have made him virtually unbeatable. Playing with a heightened sense of urgency, demonstrating an unprecedented desire to end points earlier, he has been uber-aggressive.

"He's playing maybe the best tennis that he ever has played on hard courts," said No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic after Rafa won back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Montreal and Cincinnati. "He has changed a little bit the game. He stepped in a little bit more. He knows that now he has to be a bit more aggressive than he usually is because of, I guess, his knees.

"It's not his favorite surface; it's faster. I'm sure he worked on that and you could see all the work he put in [is] getting results."

Against Harrison, Nadal's serve was not broken. A more aggressive offering was a key in his 2010 win here and Monday he won 82 percent of his first-serve points.

Nadal, who leads the race to London's World Tour Finals by well over 2,000 points, is in the best position for a year-end No. 1 ranking.

"We will see after here," Rafa said before the tournament. "This tournament will make the difference. Is true that I am having a great season. I am in this position because I played amazing."

Is he surprised he was able to mount such a stirring comeback after the bad ending at Wimbledon?

"I get tired [of hearing] his question, because every time is the same," Rafa said. "Seems like after all the things that happened to me, it seems like it's strange somebody can think strange that I will repeat the same. But I think nobody of my family, nobody of my team who is close to me seven months ago thought about [a] comeback like this.

"I feel very lucky. I feel very happy to be in this position."

Breakthrough for Klahn?

Bradley Klahn was the 2010 NCAA singles champion for Stanford University, but he's encountered some turbulence trying to make his mark in the professional ranks since graduating a year ago.

We can now report some major progress for the 23-year-old Californian. He won his first ATP-level match of the year, a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (0), 7-6 (4) first-round victory over Kenny De Schepper, who hit 20 aces.

It took three tiebreakers and 3 hours, 1 minute, but the wild card is through to a second-round encounter with Feliciano Lopez. He'll be looking for his third career Grand Slam singles win. The other two both came here for Klahn, who has been playing predominantly a Challenger schedule.

No. 11 Nishikori crashes out

At 23 years old, Kei Nishikori is one of the best young players in the world. But the No. 11 seed fell to a lesser-known 23-year-old.

The Japanese star lost to Daniel Evans of Great Britain 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 on Court 13. Both players had nine break points, but Evans -- who is ranked No. 179 among ATP World Tour players -- converted six, to only two for Nishikori. It was only the fourth tour-level match win this year for Evans.

Nishikori, a top-25 player for three consecutive years now and a Nick Bollettieri protégé, shed little light on his defeat.

"I didn't play well and he played well," Nishikori said. "I thought I was getting better, but still, you know, serve wasn't there and there was a lot of unforced errors that I shouldn't do.

"Never seen him play before. Guess he has no pressure. He was playing a little aggressive, and I was kind of tight. Tight start, and that makes difficult game for me."

Nishikori, who is 27-14 for the season, broke even on the North American hard court swing, going 3-3.

Russell still going -- for now

At the age of 35, Michael Russell is one of the least decorated among his generation of American men but, oddly enough, the oldest man finds himself one of the most viable as we speak. He's the fourth-ranked American man, at No. 92.

Russell fell to No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.

Earlier, James Blake announced his retirement after this tournament. Has Russell contemplated his own departure?

"For sure," Russell said. "I reassess every year, but I hope to play next year. It depends on my ranking and if I'm healthy.

"Most likely, next year will be my last year."

Russell echoed Blake's sentiments about the rigors of traveling around the world for much of the year.

"A lot of the tournaments are Groundhog Day," Russell said. "It gets old, a lot of that stuff. But I still love competing."

That love has a threshold, though. If Russell can maintain a ranking of No. 100 or better, he would automatically qualify for the main draws of the Grand Slams. But if his ranking falls to, say, No. 105, he would be forced to qualify.

He does not want to end his career, he said, playing Challenger tournaments.

"If I'm not top 100," he said, "Boom! -- I'm done."

Etc.

The last time out, in Cincinnati, 19-year-old Lauren Davis beat No. 34-ranked Klara Zakopalova in the first round before falling to world No. 6 Li Na in the second. Monday, the Ohio native lost to No. 18 seed Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-0. It was the first double-bagel in an opening round of the US Open since 2002 -- when Jennifer Capriati beat a 17-year-old Bethanie Mattek-Sands. … Coco Vandeweghe, the 21-year-old Californian who is ranked at No. 191, came through qualifying here and then advanced to the second round with a 6-4, 7-6 (5) win over Aleksandra Krunic. … No. 23 seed Jamie Hampton, who advanced to the fourth round at Wimbledon, beat Lara Arruabarrena 6-4, 6-2. The 23-year-old American next meets Suarez Navarro. … No. 30 Ernests Gulbis, a perennial upset favorite, was a five-set loser to Andreas Haider-Maurer. … New US Open security procedures -- what the USTA says is "airport-type security" -- made for long lines Monday. Some fans waited for more than an hour and lines were as long as a quarter mile. Gates will open 30 minutes earlier Tuesday to help compensate.