NEW YORK—Rafael Nadal says he is heading toward the final Grand Slam of the year in positive spirits after what has been a roller coaster of a season for the 14-time major winner. The Spaniard has missed a large chunk of 2016 due to a wrist injury that struck at the most inopportune time, during the French Open. Yet either side of the injury there has been evidence that Nadal could yet be a factor at the U.S. Open, which begins Monday.
After a highly disappointing 2015 that was slowed by injury, Nadal returned to form in the clay-court season, winning the Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. But his hopes for a 10th French Open title were dashed after a wrist problem worsened, forcing him to withdraw from the third round at Roland Garros.
The 30-year-old was also forced to sit out Wimbledon and has played in just two tournaments ahead of the U.S. Open. His most recent memory at Flushing Meadows is far from positive, having blown a two-set lead to go out to Fabio Fognini in last year’s third round. However, he reached the final the three previous times he competed, winning the trophy twice, giving him reason for optimism ahead of this year’s event.
“If you’re not excited for the U.S. Open, you’re not a tennis player,” Nadal said at a press conference at the Regis Hotel in Midtown on Wednesday to announce the new Laver Cup tournament. “It’s true that I didn’t play much for the last three months, but at the same time it’s true that when I stopped at Roland Garros I was playing great. So I hope those good feelings I had when I stopped help me to keep playing well here.
“It’s an event that I know very well, I like a lot. I’ve played some great matches here so I’m very excited to start competition. I need a few more days of practice here, which I’m really confident that are going to help me. We’ll see.”
Nadal has already shown encouraging form in his limited return to the tour. In his first event back, he went to the semifinals of the Rio Olympics before losing in three sets to Juan Martin del Potro and then missing out on bronze when going down to Kei Nishikori. But Nadal got plenty of tennis under his belt, going onto claim gold in doubles with his long-time friend Marc Lopez, which brought an emotional reaction from both men.
“It was a very important event, especially after what happened with my wrist at Roland Garros,” Nadal said. “I didn’t have a chance to practice almost nothing before the Olympics started so that I had the chance to win a gold in doubles, especially with my best friend, is a very special feeling.
“But I tried hard in singles, too, I was very close to a medal. But I was very happy with the way that I competed in Rio. In all aspects it was difficult, especially without practicing much, so I was very happy with the way I played.”
Roger Federer’s withdrawal from the U.S. Open due to injury provides a boost to Nadal’s chances, moving him up to the No. 4 seed and ensuring he can’t meet either world No. 1 or Wimbledon and Olympic champion Andy Murray until the semifinals. While he remains an outsider to go all the way to the title, if Nadal can get a kind draw on Friday and play his way into the tournament he could yet be a threat to go a long way.