By Ann Liguori
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NEW YORK (WFAN) — As much as I’ve respected Rafael Nadal all these years — he’s a legend as a player and an absolute gentleman — he’s interesting to watch in a different kind of way due to the numerous nervous habits that accompany him on the court.
And it seems as if the 31-year-old Spaniard, who started slowly on Tuesday before advancing to the second round of the US Open, has increased his fidgety movements as he has gotten older.
As he stands at the baseline and gets ready for his big lefty service wind-up, he quickly picks at both of his sleeves, puts his hair behind his ears, pulls at his jock strap, and touches his nose before his ball toss. His habits as he stands to return serve are not as pronounced but are still noticeable. And when he sits down during change-overs, his water and nutritional drink bottles have to be placed perfectly in the right spot.
Tennis observers have noticed these movements and superstitions for years, including his habit of jumping at the net during the coin toss, running to the baseline for warm-ups, and running out to the court from the chairs, to name a few.
Like them or not, that’s Rafael Nadal. And these nuances help the Spaniard focus and stay in the moment. There should be no questions from the gallery given what he has accomplished during a career that has featured 15 major championships.
On a rainy Tuesday that resulted in most of the outdoor matches being postponed, Nadal completed his first round by disposing of Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, 7-6, 6-2, 6-2 inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Nadal started a bit sluggish, but once he won the first-set tiebreaker, he put his game on cruise control. Powerful serves, groundstrokes, and fidgety motions dominated.
It’s not routine for Nadal to complain about noise, but he did on Tuesday. In fact, many players find that when the roof covers the Ashe court, noise inside the stadium is overly magnified. They claim they can’t hear the ball hit their opponents’ racquets and it’s more difficult to concentrate.
Nadal, however, made sure not to make excuses for his slow start against Lajovic.
“It was tough at the beginning,” Nadal admitted. “(Lajovic) was playing well, not too many mistakes. I think that first set was important to come back, and then after that, everything been changing and I’m very happy.”
What a year Nadal has enjoyed. He won a record 10th French Open title this past June, passing Pete Sampras for second all-time with 15 grand slam tournament titles and Novak Djokovic for second all-time with 22 grand slam tournament finals appearances. He also won his 10th titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He returned to the top spot in the rankings on Aug. 21, his fourth time as No. 1 in the world.
With Nadal and third-seeded Roger Federer both in the top half of the draw, tennis fans are hoping for a semifinal clash between the two greats. The fact that they’ve never played each other at the US Open is surprising. Both have overcome injuries and are enjoying a resurgence. They are playing some of their best tennis ever, which is great for the game.
The top half of the draw could present several eager giant killers, including No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov, No. 14 Nick Kyrgios, and No. 6 Dominic Thiem, to name a few. But what a great match it would be if Nadal and Federer advance to semifinals with an opportunity to make more history.
Federer, after all, is looking for his record 20th major championship.
But anything can happen because lesser-ranked players have nothing to lose and all the pressure is on the top players. Take, for example, Federer’s first-round match on Tuesday night. He squeaked out a five-set win over 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe.
The Swiss legend looked like himself in the second and third sets, but Tiafoe kept up the pressure with dazzling winners and aggressive shots from start to finish. While Federer’s movement was hampered by caution, he said afterwards he wasn’t sure if a previous back injury would flare up like it did in Montreal, which caused him to miss the tournament in Cincinnati.
Federer was able to pull out the match, but even the great Federer, especially at the age of 36, is human at times.
Both Nadal and Federer are fascinating to watch, and are quite opposite in terms of displayed energy on the court. Federer disguises his intensity and talent with stoicism and calmness. He always looks like the most relaxed person in the arena. Nadal, on the other hand, is a bundle of energy, combustion, and nerves.
A study in contrasts? Certainly. They are two of the all-time greats in tennis, with clearly different routines.
Follow Ann on Twitter at @AnnLiguori