by JAMES HENRY
CINCINNATI – Rafael Nadal leapt for joy after he won his first championship title at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
His emotions were clear. He was happy, grateful to be playing tennis again and especially pleased to be winning.
In front of his opponent’s home crowd, Nadal defeated top-ranked American John Isner in an incredibly competitive final match that required two tie-breakers: 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3).
The King of Clay now has won a career-best 15 straight hard-court matches. He is 53-3 overall this season, appearing in 11 finals in 12 tournaments and winning nine of those events.
Following last week’s victory at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Nadal has won back-to-back hard-court finals in successive weeks for the first time in his career.
And, continuing to create history, his win in Cincinnati was his 26th – a record – Masters 1000 title.
“I never did something like this in all my career, so it was an emotional moment for many different facts. First of all, I won a very important tournament, Masters 1000. Second thing, after all the problems that I had, I mean, it was just two weeks in a row on hard playing at the highest level,” said Nadal, who now will be ranked World No. 2.
“Then the ranking is there, so a lot of points. I was playing for a lot of points this week. And I’m in a good position.”
Nadal said he will practice Wednesday in New York for the U.S. Open, where he won in 2010.
“I’m going to work hard during the first few days to be ready for that,” he said. “It is a nice feeling to arrive to the U.S. Open after two victories in two very difficult tournaments. And it is nice (to) arrive there knowing that if I am able to keep continuing, keep playing like this, hopefully, I have the chance to have a good result.”
But, he stressed, he isn’t ready to focus on the Big Apple just yet – for now, he wants to savor his accomplishments in Montreal and Cincinnati.
“These tournaments don’t deserve to be preparation for others,” he said. “Masters 1000 are one of the most important tournaments of the season.”
“Masters 1000s – always difficult for me to say that because I am the one who has more, but it’s very difficult to win a Masters 1000,” he added.
“We play from the first round against the best players in the world, top 50 players in the world. In other kinds of tournaments, you can have good draws. Here, you cannot have good draws.
“So winning back-to-back tournaments is, first of all, difficult because, first thing, the courts are not exactly the same. The weather conditions are not exactly the same. The rivals brings your body and your tennis to the limit. It’s very difficult – you need to be 100-percent focused during the two weeks and playing every day.”
Nadal said his fans’ support – both in person during tennis tournaments and through social media on Facebook and Twitter – has been uplifting, especially when he was unable to compete because of injury.
“It means a lot to me, all of the positive energy that I receive from the fans, from people who is close to me, to the team or the family,” he said.
“In the lower moments, it’s very important to feel the love of the people, and I felt that as soon as I came back on every court that I am playing.
“That, for me, is great. I feel the support of the people, and it’s been one of the more emotional years of my career, no doubt about that.”
Photos by James Henry for OnTheGoTennis