NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rafael Nadal plays his first grand slam as world number one at next week’s U.S. Open with a chance to underline a magnificent season that has seen the muscular Spaniard vault past a suddenly human Roger Federer.
Nadal ended a record 237 consecutive weeks at the top for Federer, routing the Swiss master at the French Open and taking a thrilling five-set victory over him at Wimbledon before crowning a glorious run with Olympic gold in Beijing.
Even the modest Nadal, who spent a record 160 successive weeks perched behind Federer as number two, had to concede, “I am playing an unbelievable season, no doubt,” after claiming the Olympic singles title over Fernando Gonzalez.
The 22-year-old Spaniard, however, has more to prove in New York and will have his vaunted fitness tested at the last grand slam of the year starting on Monday at the National Tennis Center.
Nadal, a fourth-round loser to compatriot David Ferrer last year at Flushing Meadows, has gone no further than the quarter-finals (in 2006) in the U.S. championship and none of his five grand slam titles has come on hard court.
After crossing the globe from Beijing, he seeks to extend a remarkable 70-8 record this year that includes eight titles and far more matches than any of his competitors have played.
Federer, after years of dominating the slams, will be gunning for his first major of the year after taking three of the four 2007 slams to take his haul to 12, two shy of Pete Sampras’s record of 14.
He has won the last four Opens, though past form did him no good at the All England Club where his streak of five straight Wimbledon titles was ended by Nadal.
Federer, weakened from mononucleosis early in the season, has won just two events this year in posting a 47-12 record. In his last three tournaments, he was eliminated by American James Blake, Ivo Karlovic of Croatia and France’s Gilles Simon.
“I wish I could have done much more,” he told reporters in Beijing, where he won gold in doubles. “But I’ve still got to look forward. I look forward to the U.S. Open — try to save my season.”
Other top contenders include world number three Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the Australian Open champion and Open runner-up last year to Federer, and rising Briton Andy Murray.
Djokovic, 21, has won three times this year, matching the total claimed in 2008 by Murray, who has risen to a career-best sixth in the world.
Also announcing himself with a scorching hot summer of hardcourt tennis was 19-year-old Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina, who won his third and fourth ATP titles of the year in Washington and Los Angeles.
The 21-year-old Murray said the long reign of Federer was bound to come to a close.
“When someone sets the bar so high, guys find a way of creeping up behind you,” the Briton told reporters in Cincinnati, where he defeated Djokovic in the Masters Series event final.
“I just think tennis has got stronger.”