NEW YORK, N.Y. - As the U.S. Open approaches, the tennis world is focusing on Novak Djokovic and his remarkable season — and rightly so, according to the man he replaced at No. 1, Rafael Nadal.
"He deserves it," Nadal said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press after attending the tournament draw.
Nadal completed a career Grand Slam by beating Djokovic in the final at Flushing Meadows a year ago. That gave Nadal three consecutive major championships, and nine overall, and prompted a lot of talk about how the Spaniard had supplanted Roger Federer as the sport's dominant figure.
How quickly things can change.
With the year's last Grand Slam tournament set to start Monday, it's Djokovic who is 57-2 in 2011 with nine titles, including at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. What impresses Nadal the most is the Serb's ability to keep consistently strong of mind, tournament after tournament after tournament — precisely the sort of trait that others often praise the Spaniard for.
"He's doing something really difficult to repeat, no? He's doing well and playing fantastic tennis almost all the time. And the mental part, he's doing really well this year. It's tough to be there every week, and he's doing that," Nadal said. "The only thing I can do is congratulate him."
He's found himself offering Djokovic congratulations quite a bit this season.
Nadal is 0-5 this year against Djokovic, with each of those head-to-head matches coming in tournament finals, four on the Spaniard's beloved red clay, and the other on grass at Wimbledon last month. After that most recent encounter, Djokovic moved up from No. 2 to overtake Nadal in the ATP rankings.
After their title match at the All England Club, Nadal acknowledged that he's got a mental block against Djokovic.
"I think it was pretty shocking to him when he didn't win it. ... He was the one who sort of blinked," seven-time major champion John McEnroe said. "He just sort of lost his edge at the wrong time, and he did look like Novak had gotten into his head the way Rafa had gotten into Roger's head."
Still, Nadal says he isn't taking any particular steps in his preparation to try to overcome Djokovic should they meet again for the U.S. Open title.
"I work for myself. ... I don't think about the others. I think about what I have to do myself to improve, not to (beat) the others," Nadal explained. "All my life, I did like this, and it worked well, and that's what I'm doing all the time — try to keep improving."
A year ago, heading into the U.S. Open, the left-hander slightly altered the way he gripped his racket for his serves, and it was enough of an adjustment to add a few miles per hour to his delivery.
That adjustment, and a generally more aggressive approach to serving, gave Nadal enough of a boost to an already rather complete game that he came within one lost set of becoming the first man in a half-century to win the U.S. Open without dropping any sets.
And he says that as long as he's OK physically, he likes his chances of a repeat title.
"If I am playing well, and I'm healthy, experience tells me I am competitive with everybody. So why not here another time? Why shouldn't I think I can be really competitive here another time?" Nadal said. "I need to find my best level. And hopefully I'll be in good shape next week."
Nadal's body ran into a bit of trouble this summer — and so did his game.
First, he hurt his left foot during a match at Wimbledon, which forced him to take some time away from the courts afterward. When he returned, he lost his opening match at the Montreal Masters.
Then, last week at the Cincinnati Masters, he exited in the quarter-finals, after developing blisters on his left foot and somehow managing to burn two fingers on his right hand — which he uses for his two-fisted backhand — on a hot ceramic plate at a restaurant.
But he showed off his healthy fingers Thursday, wiggling them to show they're no longer burdened by blisters, and pronounced himself fit.
"I'm practising well this week — better than what I did in Montreal and Cincinnati. I'll try my best, and we'll see what happens," Nadal said.
And he pointed out that he returns to the U.S. Open with the knowledge that he is capable of winning this tournament.
He never could say that in the past, of course.
"Always, when you've played well one time in a place, and you come back, you believe you can do it another time. That's logical, no?" Nadal said. "Even when I didn't win here, there was a lot of motivation — it's a Grand Slam, it's the last one of the year, it's New York. There are a lot of things that make this tournament special. This year, the goal is the same as every year, but the emotions are different, because I have a fantastic memory from last year's tournament."