Watching Rafael Nadal cavort about the world's tennis courts as if he were plugged into an infinitely renewable source of energy, it is no stretch to envision him tackling all aspects of life with the same manic zeal.
But Nadal, believe it or not, is not prone to scissors kicks and fist pumps when there is no racket in his left hand. The 20-year-old from Spain, also has a reflective side, and New York brings it to the fore like no other Grand Slam city.
He first visited in early 2001, not to take part in a tournament but to take part in a family vacation dreamed up by his father, Sebastian. Several members of Nadal's extended family, including grandparents and uncles, made the journey from their home on the island of Majorca to Manhattan.
One of their day trips took them to the World Trade Center, and several months later, after coming off a tennis court in Madrid, Nadal stared at the television screen like so many others that Sept. 11 and felt a personal sense of loss as the dust rose and slowly, sickeningly dissipated.
"For me, something is still missing here," he said this week. "Whenever I come back to New York, I have this sad feeling somehow. I think if I hadn't come here before the towers were destroyed, it wouldn't have changed my feelings so much about the place, but the fact I was here at that age, that changed things a lot for me. Every year I come back, I go to ground zero," he said.
Nadal has now returned four times since 2001, and although his connection with the city has deepened, he has yet to look entirely at home at the city's biggest tennis tournament and has not made it past the third round at the US Open.
His second-round losses to Younes el-Aynaoui in 2003 and Andy Roddick in 2004 were not unexpected, but last year's loss to James Blake in the third round was a genuine upset, and it left Nadal determined to show the better side of his flashy game to New Yorkers, and to himself.
"Last year was the first year where, before I came here, I had done some significant things, and I played poorly, quite poorly," he said from the confines of a chair in the presidential suite of an elegant hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
"This year, we'll see. I've always said since the beginning of the season that this was one of my big goals for the year, what I really wanted," he said.
The reviews from his early summer hard-court tournaments have not been favorable. He took a month off after Wimbledon, during which he emerged unscathed from an automobile crash in Majorca. He returned to the courts for the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where he lost to Tomas Berdych in the third round two weeks ago. He lost in the quarterfinals last week in Cincinnati to his resurgent countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former world No. 1.
Spanish tennis, for all its great talents in the past 20 years, has not seen anything quite like Nadal, a player with the charisma and precocious, consistent results to grab headline space from "futbol."
Carlos Moya, Nadal's fellow Majorcan, also reached No. 1 in the world (in 1999), won the French Open (1998) and wore some cutting-edge tennis apparel. But he never won 60 matches in a row on clay or had a player like Federer for a foil.
Despite a brilliant season -- one that has eliminated all lingering suspicions that Nadal could dominate only on clay -- it has not been all sweetness and light. At the start of the year, he was exercising in a swimming pool instead of behind the baseline because of a small crack in a bone in his left foot. It forced him to miss the Australian Open, a tournament where the high-bouncing surface would seem to suit his game nearly as well as the crushed red brick in Paris.
Using a new insert in his left tennis shoe, Nadal rebounded quickly, winning a hard-court tournament in Dubai in early March, beating Federer in the final. In April, he defeated Federer on clay to win in Monte Carlo, and a week later, he was in Barcelona where he beat another Spaniard, Tommy Robredo, for the title.
Nadal's quarter of the draw for the US Open is hardly the roughest. His first-round opponent is Mark Philippoussis, the Australian who rarely plays the way he did when he reached the US Open final in 1998.
But if Nadal is to make the transition from slightly melancholy New York tourist to champion, he will have to play much more convincing hard-court tennis than he has so far this year.
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