Rafael Nadal is targeting a fifth US Open and 23rd Grand Slam title in New York from next week, with his path to the title no longer blocked by Novak Djokovic, whose refusal to be vaccinated ruled him out of a second major this year .
Nineteen years after his debut, the 36-year-old Nadal is dragging his injury-prone body through a tournament he won in 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2019, the year of his last appearance.
The Spaniard has had to participate in the US Open four times in his career and there are once again fresh doubts about his physical ability to survive two grueling weeks at Flushing Meadows.
Since an abdominal injury forced him to hand Nick Kyrgios a step into the Wimbledon final, Nadal has played just once — a first-round loss to Borna Coric in Cincinnati.
Nadal admitted on Friday that he was protecting his injury in Cincinnati but was allowed to train hard in the build-up to the US Open.
“I take it very easy in Cincinnati as well, in training. In the match, I try my best without putting all the effort there on the serve,” Nadal said.
“Hopefully I’ll be ready for action. That’s all I can say.
“Watching the serve, to be honest. But in general, yes, I practice at a high level of intensity.”
Nadal has made a habit of overcoming setbacks, winning a 14th French Open in June despite playing the entire tournament with pain-killing injections in his leg.
An added incentive for Nadal is the chance to reclaim the world number one from defending champion Daniil Medvedev, the man he beat in the 2019 final.
While Nadal trains in New York, arch-rival Djokovic will remain in Europe after finally giving up hope of a last-minute change in Covid policy from US authorities.
The famously unvaccinated Djokovic, who won the last of his three crowns at the US Open in 2018, is banned from entering the United States because he refused to be vaccinated.
The 35-year-old, who saw his bid for a first calendar men’s Grand Slam since 1969 ended by Medvedev in the 2021 US Open final, has not played since securing his seventh Wimbledon title last month, a victory which extended his Slam record. until 21.
His controversial stance on vaccination also saw him expelled in January from Melbourne, where he had hoped to defend his Australian Open title.
“Not having one of the greatest players in history in the Grand Slam draw is always a major loss, isn’t it?” was Nadal’s take on Djokovic’s absence.
“Tough for the fans, tough for the tournament, tough for the players because we want to have the best possible pitch.”
With Roger Federer still absent from the tour and question marks over Nadal’s fitness and Djokovic’s absence, the race for the men’s title is likely to be as open as it has been in recent years.
Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem and Medvedev have broken New York’s “Big Three” stranglehold since 2014.
Medvedev will be particularly fired up after being banned from Wimbledon along with all other Russian players following the invasion of Ukraine.
On his return to the tour following the All England Club, the 26-year-old claimed the hard court title in Los Cabos.
World number two and 2020 runner-up Alexander Zverev is out through injury, while fourth-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, a 2021 quarter-finalist, looks to turn the potential into a maiden Slam triumph at 19.
“I feel stronger and more ready than last year,” Alcaraz said. “I’ve played big matches, tough matches this year against the top players. I think I’m more ready in this tournament than last year.”
Apart from Felix Auger-Aliassime, a semi-finalist last year, the rest of today’s top 10 have endured a bittersweet relationship with New York.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Kasper Ruud, Cameron Norrie and Hubert Hurkas have yet to make the second week.