CINCINNATI // Rafael Nadal, the undisputed 'King of Clay', could soon extend his reign to the hardcourt after establishing himself as the red-hot favourite for the US Open with back-to-back wins in Montreal and Cincinnati.
With eight French Open titles, Nadal may be the best ever on the dirt but the Spaniard has also stood tall this year on the American hardcourts, where he remains unbeaten with a 15-0 record.
"On clay, we only had three [Masters events], I won two, and I played the final," Nadal told reporters after grinding out a 7-6, 7-6 win over American John Isner in the final of the Western and Southern Open.
"The results on clay were amazing. On hard, I play three, I won all three. Is only one more match. That's all.
"I think it's just a coincidence, in my opinion, but no doubt I am better player on clay than on hard."
Some would debate that assessment based on Nadal's play on the hardcourts this season which – based on his record – has so far been flawless.
To be fair, Nadal has already proven himself to be a man for all surfaces with grand slam titles on clay, grass and hardcourt.
With the exception of grass and his opening-round slip up at Wimbledon, the Spaniard has impressed on all surfaces again this season.
He added to his grand slam collection at the French Open and has captured five of seven Masters Series events, including three-of-four hardcourt stops.
The US Open has always been the hardest grand slam for Nadal because of its unforgiving surface and timing.
Of his 12 grand slam titles, only one has come at Flushing Meadows and he only reached the final on one other occasion.
Nadal usually arrives at the back end of the tennis schedule with his knees creaking like two rusty gates and nursing a mountain of aches and pains that are the payment for his relentless action-packed style.
The ongoing battle with the debilitating tendonitis in his knees continues.
But this year, after a long injury lay-off that bridged the end of last season and the start of the current campaign along with a six-week break following his Wimbledon exit, Nadal has arrived in US ready for action.
"If I am able to be healthy for the rest of the year, probably the rest is going to be positive," said Nadal.
"For the last eight years before the injury, I didn't stop, I played every year long, very long seasons with very, very high intensity.
"So mentally and physically, to have a period of rest and recovery, your body is great.
"When you are in tough moments, in hard moments, when you are suffering, working every day, trying to recover, when you are back, the only thing you want to do is try to enjoy every moment, try to be at your 100 per cent and play with the higher intensity and passion.
"After from the place that I came, just to be here playing and competing is fantastic and that gives me this extra power, intensity to compete well."
Azarenka upsets Williams in women's final
Victoria Azarenka won a showdown between the world's two top players by beating Serena Williams, the No 1, in a three set 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 thriller in the final of the Western and Southern Open on Sunday.
For two hours and 30 minutes, Azarenka and Williams engaged in a seesaw battle before the Belarusian finally clinched the victory, winning a nervy tiebreak 8-6 to prevent the American from ticking a Cincinnati win off her 'bucket list'.
"Obviously, a big win. It was a great match," Azarenka told reporters. "Really, really pleased with the way I pulled it out. It was a great battle.
"There were no giveaways. It was pure fight."
In a career that has generated 54 singles titles, including 16 grand slams, Williams had won just about everything there is to win in her sport - but not Cincinnati, one of the WTA Tour's most prestigious tournaments.
Cincinnati will remain a hole on her resume for at least another year after Azarenka answered the challenge by claiming just her third win in 15 attempts against the 31-year-old American.
Williams came into the contest with a chance to pass several career milestones beyond a first Cincinnati win but failed to secure any of them.
It was only the second time in 10 finals this season that Williams had failed to walk away with the trophy, while a victory on Sunday would have moved her up a notch on the career wins list into a tie for seventh place with Britain's Virginia Wade and compatriot Lindsay Davenport.
But the day belonged to Azarenka, who bagged her third title of the year and 17th of her career.
"We go against each other really tough, so I think, yeah, it's a good rivalry," said Williams. "I'm No 1, she's No 2 so we have that rivalry which consists of meeting in the final, which makes it even more so exciting.
"I personally was thinking it is a good rivalry and it's good to have someone out there that can play hard and fight so tough.
"She's a great player. There's a reason why she's winning grand slams and doing so well."
A marquee final featuring the world's top-ranked players initially failed to deliver the high-quality spectacle expected from two women who have captured five of the last seven grand slams.
Azarenka, who struggled with her serve against Jelena Jankovic in the semi-finals and held just three times, opened the match with two double faults to hand Williams the early break.
Williams continued her assault on Azarenka with another break at 4-1 that left the Belarusian waving her racket in anger.
"I felt like my energy wasn't maybe there 100 per cent at the beginning but that's what the match is about," said Azarenka. "It goes up and down, and you battle against somebody and you have an edge or then you don't have an edge.
"That's what is exciting about that to try to take your opponent to that place where they don't feel at their best."
In the second set it was Azarenka who had Williams talking to herself as she turned the tables on the muscular American by breaking her three times to level the match.
In the third, Azarenka and Williams finally produced the tennis and edge-of-your-seat drama that fans had come to see, twice trading breaks to send the set into a tiebreak.
With the title on the line, the quality of shots and effort sky-rocketed at both ends of the court before the contest ended with Williams's forehand into the net.
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