In New York and ready to conquer

NEW YORK -- Quick, what images flood into your head when you hear the word -- Spain?

Sparkling light blue seas, the Running of the Bulls, tapas, sangria -- oh, and perhaps a doomed economy?

Tennis, on the other hand, shows no such signs of following Greece into the toilet. These days, Spain is the unquestioned power of men's tennis. The nation has won five Davis Cup titles since 2000; Russia is next, with two.

Rafael Nadal, the eight-time champion at Roland Garros, led a staggering armada into this US Open. Spain has no fewer than 14 top-100 players (actually, they're all crammed into the top 76); France is second with 13. But Spain has quality as well as quantity: Five of its players are among the top 26. And five were still alive on the first weekend here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, two more than four other nations.

On Saturday, four of those players could be found in third-round action.

The No. 2-seeded Nadal staged his own running of the bulls in Arthur Ashe Stadium opposite unseeded Ivan Dodig. Guess who was the bull -- and who spent the match running all over the place, trying to get out of harm's way?

Nadal, predictably, won in decisive, grinding fashion 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. He was off the court in 2 hours and 8 minutes -- and very happy afterward.

"I think I played a correct match today," observed Rafa, who is, above all, a traditionalist. "To be able to win against him in straight sets is great news. I played better today than in the previous matches. Always a positive thing. Tomorrow I have another day for practice and to be better for the match of Monday. So that's all."

Well, not quite all.

There was a time when Nadal seemed like a stretch to win the title here, but in 2010, his signature year, he changed his game. He moved closer to the baseline (something that makes him uncomfortable), went for lines more and started hitting his serve a tad harder. It worked and he beat Novak Djokovic in the final.

In this tournament, as hard as it is to believe, he is playing even more aggressively.

One of the knee-jerk takeaways from Nadal's stunning first-round loss at Wimbledon was his fragile knees would no longer make a US Open title a possibility. Now, that thought seems ridiculous.

After some rest and relaxation on his home island of Mallorca, Nadal won back-to-back ATP Masters 1000 events, in Montreal and Cincinnati. He is now a career-best 18-0 on hard courts this year.

As it turns out, his sense of urgency, his over-the-top aggression in playing short points to preserve those valuable hinges has him playing the best tennis of his life on hard courts.

Rafa insists he is doing nothing differently.

"No," he said shaking his head. "At the end it's always the same thing. When somebody is having success, we find reasons why he's having success. I didn't change nothing in my life. I didn't change nothing on my practices. I tried to play mentally a little bit more aggressive."

"Playing more aggressive you're having success, so you keep going the same way."

Spain has already surpassed last year's number for total titles by two, with 16. Six different players have won tournaments. Nadal has nine all by himself.

David Ferrer has been next in line for some time. The 31-year-old is remarkably consistent; he's been to seven consecutive Grand Slam singles quarterfinals in a row. If he beats Janko Tipsarevic in the fourth round, he will make it eight. That's why he's the No. 4 seed here.

Ferrer was broken early in the match, but rallied in his typically relentless fashion to defeat Mikhail Kukushkin 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.

No. 23 Feliciano Lopez won the first set from No. 10 Milos Raonic but eventually fell to the rising Canadian, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-3. Raonic stroked 28 aces and had a top service speed of 143 mph. Lopez failed to convert any of his four break points.

Tommy Robredo was scheduled to play Daniel Evans, a qualifier from Great Britain, in a later match.

Nadal and Marcos Baghdatis – who has only played two matches – are the only two men left in the events who haven't had their serve broken.

"Will happen," Nadal deadpanned, drawing laughter at his post-match press conference. "No worries."

Perhaps, but he has positioned himself as the favorite here. And that's no joke.