NEW YORK – Is he risking a Samsonian downfall? Was Rafael Nadal’s visit to a barber shop a wise decision? Trimmed of what seemed his lucky locks, does he yet have the muscle and hustle to win a two-week tussle called the US Open.
“Why, he has ears!” exclaimed a woman who saw him yesterday, during what seemed a cameo: 33 ½ minutes of making “Gonzo” (Chilean Fernando Gonzalez) go gone-zo in the direction of Santiago. All that hair accompanying him to the heights of the tennis world is also gone-zo.
Not a crew-cut, mind you, but the regal mane has been shorn, giving him a born-again appearance in a town, New York, where he has been harried more often then not. Nadal has won three of the four majors (one Australian, four French, one Wimbledon), but the US Open has been an unhappy hunting ground of mainly early round defeats until last year when he lurched wearily to a semifinal. Once there he was easy pickings for the Scotsman, Andy Murray.
Well, “Roundhouse Rafa,” he of the mighty, debilitating left hooks, is back in the semis, but looking much better than 2008 after his 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-2), 6-0, triumph over Gonzalez.
This was a victory in two acts: a troublesome two hours Thursday night before rain chased them with Rafa holding one set and a 3-points-to-2 lead in the second set tie-breaker. More rain bageled them Friday.
Gonzalez needn’t have bothered to return yesterday for the 33 ½ minutes beneath a menacing sky of gray on charcoal clouds that dumped more rain.
“It was like a new match,” said No. 11 Gonzalez, who collected but 12 points in the second act. “I had to win the tie-breaker to stay in it” — but Nadal zeroed in on the Chilean’s backhand to quickly take the breaker and kept on going, happy to beat both his foe and the imminent downpour.
Gonzalez’s terrific forehand kept him in the match until that second tie-breaker. “I had to win that breaker, but it was over in like three minutes. Rafa was hitting many balls to my backhand, really high. I feel that I cannot do damage after that. I think I make a good play. Then I miss one. The next play I miss another one. Then I miss another one. What else can I do? I try my best, but I didn’t know what to do.”
That’s what it feels like most of the time against Rafa, the wizard of spin, who, Gopzalez said, is hitting the ball harder than ever.
Rafa was elated to get it over so swiftly, because he has a rocky road ahead to the championship. The Argentine giant, 6-foot-7 inch Juan Martine Del Potro, is in his way today, and the winner of Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic in a possible final Monday.
Three matches in three days, although Rafa said, “The match of today wasn’t important physically, no? That doesn’t matter to play two days in a row.”
Talking about the second set tie-breaker that really settled matters, he said, “Important thing is be calm, be ready to comeback [to the court]. In one situation like today anything can happen because it’s a little bit lottery, depends on the first two points” – which he got, then the next two to close.
Following a 10 week sabbatical to nurse his tendonitis-plagued knees, Rafa lost in the quarters of the Canadian Open to Del Potro, and the semifinals of Cincinnati to Djokovic.
No matter because he’s not the broken-down Nadal of 12 months ago after he’d won Wimbledon and Olympic gold. “No. Sure I’m more fresh than last year, 100 per cent. We will see how I am physically Sunday. But mentally? The last year was totally destroyed mentally. Mentally this year I am perfect, no?”
Nadal, solid mentally, but still bothered by an abdominal strain, and maybe the knees – “I don’t talk about injuries” – is a very dangerous proposition for any of the survivors. He has high praise for Del Potro: “very complete. Unbelievable serve, he don’t have mistakes.”
And Gonzalez believes Federer doesn’t like to play Nadal, who “keeps the ball high to Roger’s one-handed backhand, like he did to me.”
Is there extra incentive in Rafa’s aiming for a so-called career Grand Slam? Federer, by winning the French now owns all four majors, the sixth man to do so. Rafa needs only the US to complete his highest-grade collection.
“Well, sure it is an important goal for me, no? But I am 23 years old, so I expect to have a lot of years to be here fighting to win this tournament, no? I’m going to try all my life, but right now I focus on tomorrow.
Has the haircut taken a load off his mind? The sheared Samson pulled down the temple. Rafa will settle for dismantling the fuzzy ball temple, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.