- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- Barring the roof collapsing on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Rafael Nadal is going to be the ATP World Tour's No. 1-ranked player at season's end. It could happen as soon as Monday.
The 27-year-old Spaniard didn't play here a year ago, so he has no points to defend, and that means Nadal's lead over second-place Novak Djokovic will actually increase no matter what happens the rest of the way. Rafa's margin (2,240 points) is more than No. 9-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka has altogether.
No one has played better this year -- not even Serena Williams. Nadal has won 58 of 61 matches. He's been perfect on hard courts, 20-0, after defeating countryman Tommy Robredo in Wednesday night's quarterfinal match 6-0, 6-2, 6-2.
Believe it or not, the 31-year-old Robredo played decently. That's how good Rafa looks right now.
But if he doesn't win this tournament, none of this will matter. Rafa and his many followers (there are 4,999,618 on Twitter alone) will see this US Open as an opportunity for a 13th Grand Slam singles title squandered.
"Very happy," Rafa said in his on-court interview. "I think I played my best match at the US Open."
It was over in 100 minutes, which, as Rafaholics know, is a swift effort for the methodical one. The first set took all of 22 minutes.
Truth is Rafa has never been better on hard courts -- almost by accident.
Nadal, as everyone knows, grew up playing on clay on the island of Mallorca. His game is almost technically perfect for succeeding on the dirt: He is a relentless defender who can turn defense into instant offense. The topspin is so tight and so fierce that his shots often bounce out of the opponents' typical strike zone. His physical strength is matched only by his mental tenacity.
It would have been easy for Nadal stay in his clay-court cocoon forever; after all, it has already brought him eight French Open titles. But, at the prodding of his coach and Uncle Toni Nadal, he reluctantly ventured out of his comfort zone.
On the slippery grass at Wimbledon, site of his very first Grand Slam appearance in 2003, Rafa moved up from his usual spot 6 or 7 feet behind the baseline and stood right on it. It forced him to take the ball earlier and sharpen his angles, but it worked -- and, after losing two finals to Federer, he won a classic in 2008. There was a similar conversion on the hard, fast surfaces of the Australian Open and US Open. Rafa moved up to the baseline, went for a few more lines than usual and beefed up his serve for those coveted free points -- and won Down Under in 2009. A year later, he won the last three majors, including his first US Open.
That signature season followed Nadal's first public knee crisis, which might have contributed to a fourth-round loss at Roland Garros -- his first and only defeat in Paris -- and forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon. His second sabbatical because of sore knees, a seven-month absence, began after a second loss at Wimbledon last year. It ended in February when Nadal returned in Chile and made the finals of his first tournament back.
Rafa reached the final of nine consecutive tournaments and won two of them. This turned out to be a too-ambitious comeback, and at Wimbledon his patella tendons cried, 'No más!' Nadal lost in the first round and, with this third timeout for knees, laid low for five weeks.
Naturally, when he returned, he ran the table in Montreal and Cincinnati, winning all 10 of his matches. And as he moved aggressively through those draws, people noticed a new sense of urgency, a fresh desire to end points more quickly.
"Was necessary for us because Rafael has problems in his knees," Toni Nadal told ESPN's Pam Shriver during the match. "We told him he needed to be at the baseline. At the moment, going good.
"Today, Rafael is playing really, really well. The first set was unbelievable."
This is high -- and rare -- praise from Uncle Toni.
It was the best career move Rafa could have made (outside of dropping a few clay events in advance of Roland Garros), because it will extend his career. It has also made him better than he's ever been on this surface, which is bad if you're Tommy Robredo.
He is serving phenomenally well; he's still the only player not to see his serve broken. In five matches, he's served 67 games and faced only six break points.
Gasquet is 0-10 against him for his career, but Rafa has extra motivation to beat the Frenchman.
When they met in an international tournament in their early teens -- they were born 15 days apart in 1986 -- Gasquet won.
"He beat me 6-4 in the third," Rafa said, seemingly pretending to remember the score. "Richard was amazing in that moment. He's playing a great tournament. It's great to see him in semifinals of the US Open."
Great, unless you are Richard Gasquet.