NEW YORK – Looking back at recent U.S. Opens, Rafael Nadal sees simple explanations for why it's the only Grand Slam tournament he has yet to win.
In 2008, Nadal says now, "I was ready to do something very important here ... but mentally, I was destroyed" by the time the semifinals rolled around. He lost in that round.
In 2009, he reminds everyone, it was an accomplishment simply to reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, given that he was playing with an inch-long tear in his abdominal muscle. He lost in that round again.
And 2010? This year, Nadal says, is different. He is sound of body and mind as he approaches Saturday's semifinals at the U.S. Open, the only major tournament where he never has reached the final, as well as the only one where he never has played Roger Federer — in any round.
"Man, I'm great. Last year, I was in the semis, and that was close to a miracle. This year has been the opposite. When you're in perfect condition, there's a different perspective," said Nadal, bidding to become, at age 24, the seventh man in tennis history to complete a career Grand Slam. "I'm happy, because everything has turned out great with my physical form. Without being healthy, you cannot aspire to anything. And when you're OK, then at least you have the chance to do it."
Neither he nor Federer has dropped a set so far, steady as can be in the windy conditions that have flummoxed others. They already have met to decide seven Grand Slam championships: three at Wimbledon, three at the French Open, and one at the Australian Open, with Nadal holding a 5-2 edge in those matches, and leading their head-to-head series 14-7 overall.
If No. 1-seeded Nadal beats No. 12 Mikhail Youzhny, and No. 2 Federer gets past No. 3 Novak Djokovic on Saturday, the two greatest players of their generation will resume their rivalry in Sunday's U.S. Open final — and become the first pair of men to play each other at least once in the finals of all four Grand Slam tournaments.
"Well, for sure, Roger is the favorite of the tournament, especially because he won five times," Nadal said. "And I am in (the) semifinals, so I don't think about the final."
OK, well, first things first, then.
Nadal has won 7 of 11 matches against Youzhny, who will be playing in only the second Grand Slam semifinal of his career. The other also was at the U.S. Open, in 2006, and Youzhny got there by knocking off Nadal in the quarterfinals.
The prevailing theory for Nadal's failure to add a U.S. Open trophy to his collection — which includes five from the French Open, two from Wimbledon and one from the Australian Open — is that he arrives in New York with too much wear and tear. He plays a hard-charging brand of tennis, and hard courts only add to the pounding.
But he feels fresher this time. The Spaniard skipped Davis Cup matches after winning Wimbledon, taking three weeks off both so he could rest and get treatment for his knees, which were such a problem last season.
"I know how important is the US Open for me right now, and I know I have to arrive to this tournament fresh if I want to have any chance to have a very good result. That's what I tried. I think I did," Nadal said after beating No. 8 Fernando Verdasco in straight sets in the quarterfinals Thursday. "I am at the right round without problems, so that's very positive."
A couple of days before the tournament began, Nadal made an adjustment to the way he grips his racket to serve, and the results are nothing short of remarkable: He has won 76 of 77 service games through five matches.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has made it this far for the fourth U.S. Open in a row, and he keeps running into 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer. Djokovic lost to him in the final in 2007, and in the semifinals in 2008 and 2009, when Federer hit his YouTube-sensation, back-to-the-net, between-the-legs passing shot winner.
"He's obviously waiting for a breakthrough where he can win this title," Federer observed. "But for the last three or four years, he's gone through me, and he hasn't been able to get it done."
Federer, who is 10-5 against Djokovic overall, will be playing in his seventh consecutive U.S. Open semifinal. He won the other six, and is 45-1 in New York since the start of the 2004 tournament. The only loss in that span came against del Potro in the 2009 title match.
The U.S. Open is the only Grand Slam tournament that schedules the men's semifinals for Saturday instead of Friday, eliminating a day of rest before the final. So while everyone else might be thinking ahead to the possibility of Nadal vs. Federer on Sunday, the players themselves are not.
"If you're going to play an epic, maybe, on Saturday, that's going to really influence your chances on (the) final day. That's what's rough about this format here at the Open," Federer said. "Nothing is safe until you're through, until you're in the final."