Nadal's search for the final piece

NEW YORK -- He gets fidgety when the subject comes up, like a mischievous child trying to avoid punishment.

He dodges, deflects, demurs.

Perhaps this is because, better than anyone, Rafael Nadal understands his personal degree of difficulty when it comes to winning the U.S. Open.

If he knew the remarkable backdrop of history working against him, he might never address the subject at all. A victory here for Nadal would end an intriguing but overlooked streak that stretches across 41 years.

With the Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles already secured, Nadal is trying to win his third straight major. That hasn't happened in a calendar year since 1969, when Rod Laver won all four Grand Slam singles titles.

Nadal has won on the hard courts of Melbourne, the red clay of Roland Garros (five times) and the grass at the All England Club (twice), but his seven visits to the National Tennis Center have yet to result in hoisted hardware.

Ask him why and the 24-year-old shakes his head.

"I don't know," Nadal said softly.

And then he starts talking about the tennis balls -- not as soft as Wimbledon's.

"The ball don't get that topspin that I like to play with," he explained.

The wind -- New York has more than any other Slam.

"Sometime when you are against the wind," he said, "seems like you are not moving the ball."

The court -- very fast in the heat of late summer.

"After a few years I think I am playing better and better in this tournament," he added, "but still the center court difficult to play, no?"

Mentally, New York seems to leave him unsettled. He's the No. 1-ranked player in the world, but three of his six sets (against unseeded players from the former Soviet Union) have spilled into tiebreakers.

Physically, too.

In the past, Nadal has limped into the U.S. Open, fatigued by a full schedule. This year, he is fresher than ever before. After winning Wimbledon he took a five-week break, which included three weeks of intense treatment for his sore knees that prevented him from practicing. He played only seven matches in Toronto and Cincinnati. Rafa did not seem particularly inspired.

Nadal's best efforts here came when he reached the semifinals the past two years, and his career trajectory suggests he will eventually win. After advancing to consecutive finals in 2006 and 2007, he won Wimbledon in 2008. He progressed from the quarterfinals in 2007 to the semifinals in 2008 to victory last year in Australia.

Twenty-one times in the Open era, a man has won two major titles in the same year, but fallen one tournament short of taking three in a row. Roger Federer has won three in a season, but in each case the French Open eluded him. In 2004, Gustavo Kuerten beat him in the third round. In 2006 and 2007, Federer fell in the final -- to Nadal.

Forty-one years ago, a slight, freckle-faced redhead from Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, navigated his way through all four majors without a misstep.

Today that redhead is 72 years old and lives in Carlsbad, Calif.

"Forty-one years, eh?" Laver said, laughing. "A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1969.

"No one's won three in a row since? That's really interesting. I hadn't thought of it that way myself. I wonder if Rafa can do it."

Daunting logistics

The speed of a tennis court is a subjective thing. Maybe that's why players delight in these kinds of technical discussions.

The blue DecoTurf II surface in Arthur Ashe Stadium is faster than the main courts in Toronto and Cincinnati, but the Grandstand is considered faster, not to mention the outside courts. This is because the Ashe surface is put down last and isn't subjected to the foot traffic and weather conditions that strip away some of the grit that grips the ball on impact.

Early in the tournament, players debated whether the Ashe court -- quickened by the hot conditions -- was faster than Wimbledon's grass-covered center court. Rafa insists that Wimbledon is quicker.

Federer disagrees.

"I just feel on average the U.S. Open could be the fastest Grand Slam, yeah," Federer said. "That could be one of the problems for Rafa here in the past. But the problems are on a very high level. I mean, the guy's won in Australia. This guy doesn't need to learn how to play on hard courts anymore."

At Roland Garros, he can win standing seven or eight feet behind the baseline. At Wimbledon, where the juicy, living grass causes the ball to skid on impact, Nadal has learned to play closer to the baseline. Although this aggressive style is against his nature, he has come close to mastering it.

"The way the ball jumps off the court, especially on the clay courts, it certainly is a tremendous advantage [for Rafa]," said Jimmy Connors, an eight-time major champion and Tennis Channel analyst. "[Here] the topspin jumps up into the hitting zone of the players. They seem to be able to take the ball a little bit earlier; it kind of jumps more into the hitting zones and allows them to have an opportunity to make a more solid strike."

In New York, because of the speed and the balls as well, Nadal is forced to be even more aggressive.

"I think the balls are faster here than they are at Wimbledon," Federer observed. "You can really hit through the court if you play aggressive here."

Said Rafa, "Is more difficult for me here, especially, I think, because the ball. I think is more easy to play for the [other] players when they have the flat shots, no?

"But I won Olympics with this ball. I won in Beijing in 2005 with this ball. I can do it."

It sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

The speed of the court matters because Nadal has been susceptible to the big servers like Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray here in the past. In his second-round match against hard-hitting Denis Istomin, Nadal fell into a 5-1 hole in the second set tiebreaker but managed to escape.

Perhaps the area Nadal has improved the most is his serve, especially in tight moments. He's second among ATP World Tour players in break points saved (69 percent), third in service games held (89 percent) and first in second-serve points won (59 percent).

Nadal and Federer have met 17 times in tournament finals -- a total surpassed only by Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe (20). With Nadal seeded first and Federer second, they could meet in the final here for the first time. With three in a row on the line for Rafa, that would be a delicious matchup.

Federer, who is normally a student of the game and its history, inaccurately said that Nadal had been to the semifinals here three years in a row. It's only two, but Federer is dead on with this analysis:

"On hard courts we have more opponents, or especially him, that it's just hard then to run through seven opponents. On the hard courts he's a bit more volatile."

The real thing

In 1969, Rod Laver won 22 of the 27 tournaments he entered. His match record that year was an almost surreal 167-15.

Laver's physical gifts were generous, but his ability to problem-solve is what carried him through the 26 matches required to complete his second Grand Slam. The most difficult moment came early in the run, at the Australian Open.

With the temperature at 105 degrees, Laver met fellow Australian Tony Roche in the semifinals. Laver won the first set 7-5, but he needed 42 games to win the second -- 22-20. Roche came back to win the third and fourth sets 11-9 and 6-1, but Laver won in the fifth 6-3. The match went more than 4½ hours.

"Certainly, experience allows you to do it [win all four], the things that go along with competing in one of these events," Laver said. "You have to take them one at a time. Go in with an attitude that if things don't work out in a match … don't panic. You have to work your way through it.

"You're thinking, 'Are you going to just fold up and say I've had enough -- or do you fight through it?' You also have to have that killer instinct. The thing in my game was that I don't give up. You say to yourself: 'The trophy is more important to me than it is to him.'"

Laver sees these qualities in Nadal.

"Yes, I do," he said. "Rafa wins the long rallies on important points -- it's hard to do, to keep the ball from not flying off racket. He just seems to rise to the occasion.

"I've noticed a few times this year, his serve gets him in trouble. But when he's down a break point and he serves an ace, that tells you he's very competitive. He's the real thing."

But can he win in New York?

The ATP Champions Tour asked eight of its luminaries to pick the winners in New York. Only two picked Nadal -- Michael Stich and John McEnroe, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open titles in 1981 and 1984, but fell short at the French Open.

"Rafael Nadal wants to win the U.S. Open so badly, and it would be hard not to pick him, even though he's never won it," McEnroe said before the tournament. "The guy's just an animal; he's mentally and physically incredible and he can definitely do it if he's in shape."

Connors also had two chances to win three straight majors but, like McEnroe, couldn't manage to win at Roland Garros.

"I would never count him out on anything," Connors said. "He's got the attitude and the mental toughness to go out and to play and to learn. He has proved that he can learn how to win on anything. To think that the U.S. Open is something that he cannot achieve in my opinion is a little bit crazy.

"He's only, what 23, 24 years old? Even though he has had moderate success there, the opportunity to win certainly isn't over. In my opinion, he hasn't even reached his prime yet, so that's kind of a scary thought."

Said Federer: "There's not much he's doing wrong. If you can make it to the semis, you can make it to the finals. That's pretty clear. It's just that he ran into guys who were dangerous, who were tough, who were better than him on the day. I remember when Murray beat him, or last year del Potro beat him -- they all played fantastic tennis."

Ivan Lendl came as close as you can come to winning three Grand Slam events in a row. In 1986 and 1987, he won at Roland Garros, lost in the finals at Wimbledon (to Boris Becker and Pat Cash, respectively) and then won the U.S. Open.

"I think this will always be the toughest one for him to win," Lendl said. "In my opinion, he will win it someday. But as long as Federer is playing well, it's going to be tough."

Laver sees it the same way.

"I think Rafa certainly does [have a chance]," Laver said. "But my gut feeling is [Federer]. He looks like he has his confidence back. Watching him [on television] in Cincinnati, he's starting to play effortlessly again. Not trying too hard and everything's just nice and slow off his racket. He knows he's going to miss some balls and, unlike some times last year, he doesn't seem concerned."

Although Laver allowed that winning three straight would be "pretty impressive," he said Federer's three-Slam seasons might have been more difficult.

"Three in a row -- I don't put much credence in that," Laver said. "In some ways, three out of four is more impressive, because it's over nine months, instead of four."

Still, winning on three different surfaces in that narrow timeframe would be unprecedented; three of the majors in Laver's day were played on grass. ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert insisted that a win in New York would give Rafa the best season ever by a man.

Laver wonders how Nadal's knees will hold up on the concrete at the National Tennis Center.

"He's not limping," Laver said, "but there's a weakness in there. Will that come back and bite him? His Cincinnati effort was a little suspect. But you never know what can happen in two weeks. Bring your best tennis and it can happen for you.

"It will be fun to watch him to see if he can do it."

Before the tournament, Nadal was asked to assess his chances.

"I hope to have another chance to play well here, to have a chance to win, but without obsession, no?" he said thoughtfully. "I am more than happy what I have at home, all the tournaments that I won. Now I have the illusion to improve my tennis to play well here, and that's what I am trying all the time.

"For sure for me personal satisfaction going to be high if any day I have a chance to win here."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.