Fresh off the worst performance in a major in his career, Rafael Nadal must avoid a lackluster U.S. Open if he wants to enter 2014 being viewed as anything but a clay-court specialist.
That is a label Nadal knows all too well. It is one he carried with him during the early stages of his brilliant career.
Nadal won four French Open titles before winning a major away from clay. That came with his breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2008. Between that Wimbledon and his championship at the 2010 U.S. Open, the 12-time major winner took home three other Grand Slam titles.
That included a second title at Wimbledon and his lone title in the Australian Open. Those four titles away from clay are his only four majors that haven't come at Roland Garros.
I say "only" in the context of Nadal's greatness. For 99.999 percent of tennis players, four major titles on any surface is enough to base a career on. However, Nadal has been so excellent, he has an elevated bar.
However, that bar, for the expectations of the remainder of his career, will be considerably lower if he can't make a strong run at Flushing Meadows.
Nadal entered Wimbledon after claiming his eighth French Open title, which really helped him put the icing on the cake after coming back from a lengthy layoff due to a knee injury.
Heading into Wimbledon, he was the hottest player in tennis. Since his return from injury, he has played in nine tournaments. He won seven of them and made the finals in all nine. That gave him a record of 43-2, which was the best start of his career.
All signs pointed to him being a serious factor for the title. However, instead of contending, he lost in the first round to Belgian Steve Darcis, who is ranked 135th among the ATP World Tour players.
It was a shocking result and the first time in Nadal's career that he had lost in the first round of a major.
There were moments during the match that it appeared Nadal was limping.
This was a troubling sight, and it raises concerns over Nadal's future. Can he handle a full schedule of tennis? Can his troublesome knees take the abuse of his violent style on surfaces away from the soft clay?
These are all legitimate questions at this point, ones there is no concrete answer to. The U.S. Open will go a long way toward answering these questions.
If Nadal can make a deep run at Flushing Meadows, he will prove to everyone that it is too early to write him off at majors away from France. However, if he falls early, it will be time to start considering Nadal a factor at only one major: the French Open.
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