Is Rafael Nadal Conceding The U.S. Open?

In the runup to next week’s U.S. Open tennis tournament, defending champion Rafael Nadal is understandably doing a lot of media avails.

Such as this one for WWD:

Rafael Nadal’s Winning Ways

Behind the baseline, Rafael Nadal is known to be a tenacious competitor, but at Macy’s Armani Jeans shop Thursday night, he was all charm.

The 10-time Grand Slam winner smiled broadly throughout the meet-and-greet, lowering his head ever so slightly as some 400 fans chanted, “Rafa, Rafa.” Security guards marched up and down the floor’s main aisle trying to keep everyone, including scads of cellphone-snapping admirers, in check. After taking the train into the city from New Jersey and waiting an hour in the flagship, an autograph-seeking teenage fivesome from the Ramsey Tennis Team were armed and ready with tennis balls. While a few harped on his athletic skills and likability, Lauren Webb cut straight to the chase, “And he’s hot.”

Less so on the tennis court lately, but why get technical about it.

Regarding that, Nadal exhibited his trademark Rafability in the WWD interview:

Asked what is most challenging about competing he said, “Nothing. This is what I have done all my life. I practice every day and try my best in every moment. I try to think positive all the time. You never know when you are playing not-so-good, when you might start to play well. You just have to try your best in every moment.”

Regardless, Nadal has played second fiddle to Novak Djokovic’s virtuoso performance in men’s tennis finals all this year, losing five straight times to the Superb Serb. In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Nadal addressed that drought directly:

“To beat him I had to be perfect, mental and tennis level, and I wasn’t,” Nadal said. “I’m happy about my year, not happy about my matches against Djokovic.”

There was also this in the WSJ piece:

Nadal said he would need time to regain the confidence, and the indomitable status, he had in 2010, when he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same season. He said that even if he wins the U.S. Open, he won’t feel in perfect mental condition until next year.

“I’m going to go and practice with the right attitude,” he said. “And hopefully next January I will be there competing at a little bit higher level than this year.”

In politics, that’s called playing the expectations game. In Nadalspeak, it’s setting the bar surprisingly low.

Coincidentally, Friday’s New York Times featured a front-page story on Djokovic’s new marketing potential:

Next Makeover for a New No. 1 Is in Marketing

MONTREAL — Pressed against a barricade, fans glimpsed Novak Djokovic and readied their cellphones. Necks craned. Cameras flashed. Djokovic, the Serb now deep into a historic tennis season, had created an impromptu mosh pit at a recent tournament here.

The scene underscored the defining characteristic of his season: change, on all fronts, with more promised. In the past year, in a relatively extreme makeover, Djokovic changed his serve, his diet, his publicist, his fitness regimen and, because of all of this, his standing in men’s tennis.

The next phase — making Djokovic a household name, among the world’s biggest sports stars — will continue next week in the United States Open, where he was named Wednesday the No. 1 seed in the men’s draw. While Djokovic has surpassed his rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the tennis court, he now hopes to at least join those two, who both reside on Forbes magazine’s list of the top 10 most powerful athletes, in areas such as endorsements, fame and global exposure.

The truth is, from a marketing standpoint Novak Djokovic will never have what Rafael Nadal does. But from a tennis standpoint, he has exactly what Rafa wants.

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