Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay, but the US Open has become a second home

NEW YORK — It would be understandable if Rafael Nadal, 12 times a champion in Paris, had mixed feelings to go with his mixed results at the US Open. As a player, the 33-year-old champ feels most at home at Roland Garros. But somewhat surprisingly, the US Open — where Nadal has won three titles — has become something of a second home.

“I said every single day, but I can repeat: I feel comfortable here,” Nadal said late Friday evening after advancing to his fifth championship match in Flushing Meadows. In the final, he’ll play Daniil Medvedev, the 23-year-old Russian player who has been tearing up the hard courts all summer. “I like the [US Open] atmosphere. I like the crowd. I feel a big energy when I am playing in this Arthur Ashe Stadium.”

In New York, Nadal also feels something that he often doesn’t in Paris, where the crowd places higher value on aesthetics. The French admire and respect the grinder Nadal, but they are besotted with the artist Roger Federer. Many mildly begrudge the way Nadal has denied them more opportunities to celebrate the Swiss genius. Nadal has always sensed that, but he has been too proud — or savvy — to admit it.

Not so in Gotham, where fans weaned on the celebration of the working man deeply appreciate Nadal’s muscular, git ‘er done game. The “King of Clay” said he feels a different vibe in New York: “You just can say thanks to the crowd because, honestly, I feel a big support from them all the time. That’s important for me.”

Nadal has learned to love this hot, boisterous, final Grand Slam of the year the slow, hard way. He won his first French Open in 2005, just after he turned 19. He won five more Grand Slam titles before he finally cracked the US Open in 2010, with a four-set win over the man who would become his nemesis, Novak Djokovic. The win completed Nadal’s career Grand Slam, lifting him into the company of just five other men in tennis history, and debunked the argument that he’s too one-dimensional. Neither Bjorn Borg, by consensus the second-greatest player on clay, nor Guillermo Vilas, almost undoubtedly the third, ever won the US Open on hard courts.

“I think for the first time in my career, I played a very, very good match in this tournament,” Nadal said after that 2010 final. “You know, I still [am just] 24. It’s a dream to have the career Grand Slam, but this is more of a dream, to have the US Open [title].”

Two failed attempts followed before Nadal won his second title on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Once again, his opponent was Djokovic, but the Serbian star was a much different player from the one Nadal thumped in 2010. By 2013, Djokovic was world No. 1 and had appeared in eight of the 11 major finals preceding the US Open (he won five).

Nadal, who had been out for six months with career-threatening knee tendinitis, played perhaps the best hard-court final of his career, winning in four sets.

“For a few things, this season is probably the most emotional one in my career,” Nadal said at the time. “I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here. I never thought something like this could happen.”

That win has lost none of its luster in his eyes. Shortly before the current tournament began, he said: “I think the [US Open] match I have best memory probably is the final of 2013. [It was] so important a victory for me after a big and long injury in 2012. To be able to win a Grand Slam here [again] on hard court was so special.”

Four years later, in 2017, Nadal received his most manageable assignment in a US Open final: a date with hard-serving Kevin Anderson. Nadal won in straight sets, giving up just 10 games.

Those great moments, though, were interspersed with significant disappointments in New York. The four-set beating that capped Djokovic’s enchanted 2011. The five-set, third-round loss to Fabio Fognini in 2015, a match that cast a harsh spotlight on Nadal’s ongoing crisis of confidence. Shortly after his win over Djokovic in 2013, Nadal got a case of the blues that lasted until the start of 2017.

The crusher, though, was last year’s failure. Nadal seemed ready to challenge Djokovic for the title again after an epic win over Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals. But the toll on his tender knees proved severe. After losing the first two sets of his semifinal to Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal threw in the towel. He left his final news conference at the National Tennis Center in tears.

But here he is again. Ready to go. Ready to kick his leg up and throw the upper cut, yelling, “Vamos!” Ready to repay the crowd that loves him with another title.

Nadal, seeded No. 2, rolls into the final unbeaten at this tournament in 18 consecutive matches played to completion. Federer and Djokovic are long gone. Nadal’s next opponent had a taste of his hard-court fury in Montreal just weeks ago, when Nadal waxed Medvedev in the final 6-3, 6-0. The challenger resorted to a blunt but grisly description of Nadal’s success: “He was kind of eating me on the court.”

A fourth US Open title would push Nadal ahead of Djokovic and one shy of Federer’s record five. It would be his 19th major title, leaving him one behind Federer. Nadal was guardedly optimistic as he embarked on this tournament, the painful memory of last year still weighing on his mind.

When asked how he expected those troublesome knees to hold up to the wear and tear, he answered, “I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. Of course, to arrive to the big events with good feelings helps.”