Rafael Nadal missed last year’s U.S. Open with a bum left knee and ended up watching the final on TV from his home on the Spanish island of Majorca.
“For sure I watched the final,” Nadal said with a smile in reference to Andy Murray’s historic five-set win over Novak Djokovic. “It was a great final, but was not a strange feeling because most of the times that I played Grand Slam I watched the final on TV, so at the end is nothing completely new.”
What is new is that Nadal comes roaring into this year’s Open having gone 15-0 on hardcourts in 2013 and won back-to-back hardcourt tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati.
A year ago, many wondered whether Nadal would have to cut back on his hardcourt schedule because of the punishment his balky left knee was taking as a result of his grueling groundstroke game.
So much for that theory.
“Is true that I am having a great season,” said the typically understated Nadal, the No. 2 seed and 2010 Open champ who meets American Ryan Harrison in the first round Monday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
His challengers all agree.
“Nadal is definitely back, and he’s playing maybe the best tennis that he ever played on hard court really,” said Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, who could face a rematch with Murray, the reigning Open and Wimbledon champion, in one semifinal.
“[Nadal] is definitely so far the best player this year. There is no question about it. The results are showing everything.”
Nadal’s draw is certainly interesting.
He could face the 6-foot-10 bullet-serving American John Isner in the fourth round and then possibly arch-rival Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, before a potential semifinal with fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.
Federer is the No. 7 seed here, the lowest he’s been since 2002, before he emerged to win five straight Opens from 2004-08.
“I think it’s an exciting draw [with] Rafa being nearby,” said Federer, the winner of a men’s record 17 major titles. “Plus we have never played here. I really hope from my side that I can make it.”
Then Federer added: “But clearly when I come here I don’t just look at trying to make the quarters, you know. I’m clearly here trying to win the tournament.”
Federer lost to Nadal in three sets in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, and Nadal went on to beat Isner in two tiebreak sets to win the event.
Now Nadal remains the clearcut favorite to win his second U.S. Open and 13th career major singles title despite missing seven months because of the knee.
“I think nobody of my family, nobody of my team who is close to me, seven months ago thought about comeback like this,” Nadal said.
“I feel very lucky. I feel very happy to be in this position.”
MEN TO WATCH …
Novak Djokovic (No. 1 seed) — The Serb has appeared in three straight finals here, winning it all during a tremendous 2011 campaign. He may need to beat No. 3 Andy Murray in the semifinals before a potential finals date with No. 1 Rafael Nadal.
Rafael Nadal (No. 2 seed) — After missing last year’s Open with a balky left knee, the Spaniard has stormed back to go 15-0 on hardcourts in 2013 and enters as the prohibitive favorite.
Andy Murray (No. 3 seed) — The Scot broke through to win his first major title in Flushing Meadows a year ago, and then followed it up by becoming the first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon.
Juan Martin del Potro (No. 6 seed) — The big-hitting Argentine won it all in 2009, knocking off Nadal and Federer in back-to-back matches.
Roger Federer (No. 7 seed) — The 17-time major winner enters with his lowest seed in more than a decade and will need to take his game to a special level to win an 18th Grand Slam.
John Isner (No. 13 seed) — The highest-seeded American in the draw, Isner has a tough draw, with Nadal looming in the fourth round.
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter @AdamZagoria for coverage throughout the U.S. Open.