All roads lead to Novak Djokovic
"Easy to analyze," he said. "The opponent was better than me. That's it."
So much better that some folks wondered if Djokovic might actually win the French Open, Nadal's private game reserve since 2005. But Nadal managed to win his eighth Roland Garros title in nine years by beating Djokovic handily in the final.
The 27-year-old from Serbia rallied, of course, and won at Wimbledon to take his seventh Grand Slam singles title. His reward? Djokovic married his longtime girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, in Montenegro. They exchanged vows under a gazebo fringed by pine trees overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
Now it might only be a coincidence, but the No. 1-ranked player in the world and the favorite to win the US Open comes in having lost two of his three matches since he tied the knot.
"It was bad," Djokovic said after he fell in straight sets to Tommy Robredo, a 32-year-old wearing sunglasses more appropriate for a 3-year-old, a week ago in Cincinnati. "Many, many, many things are not clicking these two weeks on hard courts."
Many, many, many.
That's a lot. So how and why is Djokovic the favorite in New York? Truthfully, he's the best of some dodgy options.
First, Nadal is sitting at home in Spain nursing a sore right wrist. It's the third major the defending champion has missed in three years, and given that he is 28, it's clear his body is starting to break down. Last summer, he ran the table in Montreal, Cincinnati and New York, and in some ways, it appears he's still paying the physical price.
Andy Murray, the 2012 US Open champion, has seen his ranking fall to No. 9 and has yet to win a title since having offseason back surgery. The surprise 2009 winner, Juan Martin del Potro, is sidelined with another wrist injury, and Toronto winner Jo-Wilfried Tsonga got bounced in his first match in Cincinnati.
That would make 33-year-old Roger Federer, who won Cincinnati for the sixth time (his 80th ATP World Tour title), next in line, according to the oddsmakers.
But the Open, with its quirky scheduling and sometimes difficult conditions, is the most physical of the Grand Slams. Djokovic, despite his recent cooling-off period, is best positioned to cope. He has been the most consistent men's player this year; with one Slam in each of the past two seasons, a second would solidify his position at the top of the tennis ladder.
Djokovic would become only the fourth player in ATP rankings history to return to the year-end No. 1 after falling out of it.
His main complaint after losing to Robredo was that he didn't feel comfortable on the court.
"There are no real issues," he said. "It's just [not] feeling the ball well."
The solution: "Practice, practice."
And that's what Djokovic has been doing for more than a week in New York.
"All roads lead to Djokovic," Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob said. "He's got the best hard-court record in the world, which makes him the favorite. His defense, his movement -- just his sheer balance -- make him extremely hard to beat. The fifth set in the Wimbledon final [against Federer] was huge for him. To me, it looks like Djokovic is re-establishing himself as the alpha male in men's tennis."
For ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, once the coach of Andre Agassi and Murray, Djokovic is the best player, period.
"It's his ability to beat you with either offense or defense," Gilbert said. "He can absorb pace as well as anyone I've seen. And the most underrated part of his game -- bar none -- is a tremendous second serve. Put that together with the best return of serve in the game, and that presents a problem."
Two of Djokovic's younger competitors raved about his game in recent conversations with ESPN.com.
"He's tough to beat because he's so good at so many things," said Milos Raonic, who reached the Wimbledon semifinals. "His return of serve, his second serve -- and his first serve is better than it was. And one thing you can't say enough: He moves as well as anyone."
Said 21-year-old American Jack Sock: "Djokovic's return of serve ... is the best ever. And his second serve is so strong. That's the key to winning in this game. I practiced with him once, and I've seen a lot of matches on TV. He has everything you want: size, speed and strength."
Now he just needs to put together seven matches in the season's last major.
"I think Djokovic has three more big years in him," Gilbert said. "I'd be shocked if he doesn't get to low double figures for Slam titles."
Eight might not be enough, but a win in New York would set Djokovic up nicely for that double-digit run.