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Can Rafa keep up the pace?

8/31/2013 - Tennis

NEW YORK – For the rabid fans of Rafael Nadal, there was something delicious about his wiping the floor with Rogerio Dutra-Silva on Thursday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It was a glorious 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 beatdown in which fans got to bathe in their man shine brighter than a supernova, unconcerned with the possibility of losing. Nadal so overmatched Dutra-Silva that a Grand Slam match became an exhibition.

For those wondering if the Nadal resurgence would translate into a US Open title, it would have been better for him to have played Vasek Pospisil, the man Dutra-Silva rallied against from two sets down to win in the first round. Pospisil is a massive server, far more dangerous on hard courts than any other surface, able to make a match uncomfortable because of his ability to control his serve.

In the first two rounds, Nadal has not yet had the opportunity to test his new hard-court strategies against a big server, but he will get that chance against Ivan Dodig in the third round. Dodig -- who beat Nadal in three sets two years ago in Montreal -- is a blazer whose serve clocks in at about 135 mph and who follows a huge first serve with an attacking net game.

In his first-round match against Fernando Verdasco, in which Dodig won the first two sets but was pushed to five before advancing, Dodig dropped 10 aces and came to the net 41 times. His fastest serve was 133 mph and his average first serve was 115 mph. In a straight-sets rout of Nadal nemesis Nikolay Davydenko in the second round, Dodig blasted 16 aces and was equally dominant.

"He's playing great," Nadal said of Dodig. "He had an amazing victory against Verdasco [in the] first round and a very tough opponent [for] Davydenko in straight sets. He's a very aggressive opponent, good serve, very good backhand, he goes to the net. He's a tough one."

If the scouting report on Nadal has any value, speed on hard courts is the best way to begin to get him off his game. The theory is that Nadal gets more anxious against big servers and doesn't begin to impose his game on the match until he breaks. Such was the case earlier this year when Nadal faced the big-serving Daniel Brands on clay.

Nadal will not be able to get to next week without dealing with heavy pace. Should he survive Dodig, it could set up a potential fourth-round battle with John Isner, whom Nadal beat in the Cincinnati final three weeks ago in two tiebreak sets, followed by a possible showdown against Roger Federer, their first at the US Open.

Much of the speed narrative is overrated, though. Nadal entered 2013 having won only one hard-court title since beating Novak Djokovic to win the 2010 the US Open, but he made the finals of three non-clay majors -- Wimbledon and the US Open in 2011, the Australian Open in 2012 -- losing to Djokovic each time. He lost the Masters 1000 hard-court final in Tokyo to Andy Murray, plus the Indian Wells and Miami finals (both in three sets) to Djokovic in 2011.

Nadal hasn't won bigger on hard courts because he's lost to excellent players. It's not as if he was getting clocked by qualifiers just because he wasn't playing on clay.

Still, at his level, victory is measured not by simply winning matches, but by winning championships rather than runner-up trophies. And while talent matters, the ability to confront and solve problems is an underrated part of the game.

During this tournament, Ivo Karlovic powered 38 aces past James Blake largely because Blake refused to vary his return position. Last year's marathon at Ashe between Philipp Kohlschreiber and Isner -- who play in an anticipated rematch here Saturday -- turned because Kohlschreiber attacked Isner's nuclear serves by stepping in and taking the ball early instead of standing far behind the baseline.

Isner did not adjust. His coach wanted him to employ more kick serves that would have better handcuffed the 5-foot-10 Kohlschreiber (who also has a good one-handed backhand). Kohlschreiber won the match in five hostile sets.

Nadal, though, confronted the issues with his hard-court game entering 2013. Traditionally, he would stand behind the baseline, content to grind, rally and wait for opportunities to employ his sizzling groundstrokes, not dissimilar to his clay style. The strategy worked until he faced elite players. Djokovic, with his two-handed backhand and penchant for attacking balls by creeping inside the baseline, constantly put Nadal too much on the defensive.

With the exception of his 2010 title run at Flushing Meadows, when he incorporated more power, Nadal has always employed a high-percentage first serve and controlled points through rallies and court position. This year, Nadal has served harder and not waited to rally. He is a more attacking player, both offensively in stepping into the court and defensively on service returns.

"First of all, Nadal is definitely back, and he's playing maybe the best tennis that he has ever played on hard court, really," Djokovic said at the start of the tournament. "He was very aggressive and he seems like the changed his game a little bit. He's stepped in a little bit more. He knows that know he has to be a little bit more aggressive than he usually is because of, I guess, his knees and everything and because hard court is not clay. It's not his favorite surface. It's faster."

Aware of the scouting report, Nadal also has addressed and shattered the notion that he cannot handle the pace on hard courts.

During his unbeaten hard-court season, he took out the hard-serving Juan Martin del Potro -- who has perhaps the biggest forehand in tennis -- in the Indian Wells final. Nadal has beaten Federer three times this year, including in the hard-court quarterfinals at Indian Wells and Cincinnati, achieving what once seemed unlikely: a winning record (7-6) against Federer on hard court as well as clay.

In consecutive Masters 1000 finals in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal took on two of the biggest servers in the game, Isner and Milos Raonic, and did not lose a set. The Isner final was significant because Nadal never broke Isner, yet managed to come through and win the title.

"I'm sure he worked on that and you could see that all the work he put in is getting results," Djokovic said. "He's definitely so far the best player this year. There's no question about it. The results are showing everything."