Coated with sweat, glistening in red, eyes forced shut, fists pumping, Rafael Nadal celebrated his victory at the Rogers Cup in Toronto two weeks ago. It hadn't been an easy week for Nadal, and he had managed to make things difficult for himself in the final: Failing to serve out the second set at 5-4, and nervously pushing over the line in the tie-breaker against youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas. But the Spaniard had survived and triumphed to win his first hard-court title since his US Open win in 2017.
"The level of tennis haven't been that high during the whole week, but I found a way," Nadal said later in Toronto. "And in the important moments, it's true that I played with the right determination all the time. Well, not today in the 5-4. But is true. Suffering, without playing sometimes the best tennis, I managed to win a very important title, no? So that's very, very important for me."
It got Nadal in the hard-court groove. He skipped the Cincinnati Masters last week, choosing to rest and save his body for the last Grand Slam of the year.
At times, it has been a prickly period for Nadal, the season end, as the miles he put on the tennis court in the first seven months of the year start catching up, showing up in the form of injury or fatigue. But team Nadal advised him a week of the Bahamas, before he heads to New York to defend his title.
There are a couple of trends that Nadal will have to buck if he has to repeat the 2017 US Open triumph. First, he has only ever defended a major title at Roland Garros, where he has won 11 of his 17 Grand Slams. Secondly, no men's champion has ever defended the title in the past 10 years at the US Open. Roger Federer, who won the US Open for five consecutive years from 2004-2008, was the last to do so. But the flow of history rarely bothers Nadal.
Nadal achieved the seemingly impossible mission of displacing Federer from his perch atop the tennis rankings 10 years ago. The Swiss went 237 straight weeks at the top of the class. For 160 of those, Nadal sat in second position. Rather than patiently waiting for his chance, hoping for Federer to topple, the Spaniard went on searing, relentless streak of title wins. The 2008 Wimbledon victory tipped the scales in his favour. In August, after winning the Rogers Cup in Canada and making the finals at Cincinnati, Nadal had finally scaled the rankings peak.
"I had three-and-a-half good years " 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008," Nadal told the ATP website. "I was winning a lot of points every year, but there was a player that was winning more than me in Roger. That year, Novak (Djokovic) also started playing well, so for me he was another tough rival. I began questioning whether I would ever be No 1, so it was important for me to achieve it."
At 32, Nadal is, rightly so, playing a shorter schedule to extend his career. The Masters event in Toronto is the only hard-court tournament he has chosen to play ahead of the US Open. As the top seed and defending champion, the Spaniard starts as the tournament favourite. Even though it was the last major he captured to complete his career Grand Slam in 2010, it has been his most successful outside the French Open. The Spaniard has won three titles at the Flushing Meadows, the last of which came unexpectedly in a year of surprises in 2017.
After sitting out for six months, Nadal and Federer have returned to the tour in January and quickly gave the tennis audience a taste of what they were missing. The two men in their 30s overcame a tough field to enter the finals at the Australian Open, and then set about creating another epic. Federer won that in five sets, Nadal took the French Open without dropping a set. The Swiss then reigned supreme at Wimbledon.
Nadal had to match him move for move, Slam for Slam. But he had become estranged from the Open. The Spaniard had skipped it in 2014. A year later, he had gone down in the third round to temperamental Italian Fabio Fognini. In 2016, he was packed up by French youngster Lucas Pouille in the fourth round.
The year 2017 was one of possibilities for the aging champions, and Nadal took his chance. With his rivals falling by the wayside, he didn't have to face a single top-25 player. The nearest he got to the edge was against Juan Martin Del Potro in the semi-final, when the Argentine, who had knocked off Federer in the previous round, took the first set. There was no more 'suffering' in store for Nadal, as he cruised past Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 in the final.
It is unlikely that Nadal will have such a swinging time in New York this time around. One of his toughest rivals, Djokovic, is scripting a fairytale return of his own: He has already won Wimbledon and Cincinnati Masters. Federer can never be discounted. And there is always a lurking threat from Marin Cilic and del Potro, especially on hard courts. Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka are all healthy and back.
But no one does tough better than Nadal.