NEW YORK — In a U.S. Open missing a remarkable five of the top 11 players in the ATP rankings, two giants remain on the marquee, extending their ownership of 2017 into the year’s final Grand Slam before the first ball has even been played.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been left to lord over the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this year. They occupy center stage while Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have retreated from New York to tend to a niggling left hip, for Murray, and a bad right elbow, for Djokovic.
But this generation’s greatest rivals remain in top form.
The top-seeded Nadal, 31, captured his 10th French Open this year and reclaimed the No. 1 ranking earlier this month for the first time since 2014. At 36, third-seeded Federer arrives in New York having won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017.
A potential meeting between the two, which could happen in the semifinals, is tasty enough to have tennis fans salivating more than a week in advance. One wrinkle sweetens the thought: Despite having faced each other 12 times at the majors, the pair has never met at the U.S. Open.
There “remain five matches (for each player), so 10 matches, 10 victories to have that match,” Nadal said Saturday in a valiant effort to dismiss questions about the possibility. “A lot of points and games to play, so now is not the moment to think about that.”
In fact, Nadal might prefer the moment never arrive at all.
“If I am in semifinals, (I prefer that it) not,” he said, smiling. “I prefer to play against another one. Is obvious, no? I am not that way. It sounds very good, but the real thing, I prefer to play against another player — an easier one, if it’s possible.
“I know you want to hear the other way, that I would love to play with him. No, of course I understand that’s going to be great for our history. It’s true that we played in all Grand Slam finals … but, anyway, meeting him here, in the semifinals, with Roger, if that happens, that will be something great and amazing. But as I said before, we made a lot.”
Federer, who plays College Park native Frances Tiafoe in his opening-round match Tuesday, has more Grand Slam trophies (19) than any other man in history. But Nadal owns a 23-14 edge over the Swiss in their all-time head-to-head matches and has defeated Federer nine of the 12 times they have played in Grand Slams.
A perforated men’s draw has made the possible faceoff even more appealing.
In addition to Murray — who withdrew Saturday and bumped 2017 Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic, the No. 5 seed, to the spot on the draw usually held by the No. 2 seed — and Djokovic, three other big names are missing in New York. Last year’s champion, Stan Wawrinka, 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori and 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic are all dealing with injuries.
Their absences present opportunities neither Federer nor Nadal, both of whom shut down their 2016 seasons early to heal from injuries of their own, could have predicted at the beginning of the year.
“I didn’t foresee that the defending champ and the finalist wouldn’t be here,” Federer said. “And that Andy was going to struggle this year. You could foresee that maybe, you know, Rafa and me would be back in some shape or form but maybe not quite like this. So I think we’re all a bit surprised. All the players, all the media, all the experts and fans. But, you know, when somebody is injured, somebody else wins.”
“In January, yes,” Nadal said, confirming his own surprise at his and Federer’s success in 2017. “Now, a little bit less. … Of course, it’s something that probably you and we didn’t expect, to have that much success, but here we are. And we worked well, we worked with passion, and we played well. So let’s see how we finish the season.”
As ever, Federer’s and Nadal’s returns to top form prompted questions about longevity for the two veteran players.
The most noteworthy inquiry came from a young tennis fan Saturday, who was at Federer’s news conference as a part of Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day. After questioning Federer about Switzerland’s livestock — “There isn’t too much livestock, why do they call you the GOAT?” — the child requested that Federer continue playing until he was old enough to turn pro himself.
Federer gave a wide grin in response.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “If you make it on tour, I’ll make sure maybe I come back for you, okay? Pinkie promise.”