|Novak Djokovic, after the loss
New York: It was early afternoon on Monday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and Rafael Nadal’s father, Sebastian, and other members of the Nadal clan were wandering through the US Open Court of Champions, snapping photographs of the plaques honouring inductees past.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Nadal (picture above) looked like a long shot for a place on that wall. He was a clay-court champion first and foremost, then a grass-court champion.
But he is among the greats on all the Grand Slam surfaces now and on Monday he put an exclamation point on the most astonishing hardcourt season of his career by beating his new archrival, Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, to win the US Open championship.
“For a few things, this season is probably the most emotional one in my career,” said Nadal, a 27-year-old from the Spanish island of Majorca. “I felt I did everything right to have my chance here. You play one match against one of the best players in the history in Novak and No. 1 in the world on probably his favourite surface. I knew I had to be almost perfect to win.”
Watching him with no tape on his left leg and no ball seemingly too far out of reach, it was frankly difficult to believe that he had seriously considered skipping hardcourt tournaments altogether earlier this season, to protect himself from a recurrence of the knee problems that had kept him off the tour for seven months.
It is the process more than the destination for Nadal, but he still looked more than satisfied when he had finally finished off Djokovic on a night with a sliver of moon visible in the sky and more than a few tears visible in his eyes and the eyes of those closest to him.
“Grande, grande, grande, grande, grande,” came the shouts from his camp after he had picked himself up off the court and eventually jogged to the edge of the court to commune with them.
This victory, more gruelling than the score line would suggest, gave Nadal a second US Open title to go with the first he won in 2010 with another four-set victory over Djokovic. It also gave him a 13th Grand Slam singles title that seemed anything but unlucky.
“Thirteen is an amazing number,” Nadal said.
But perhaps the most remarkable statistic after a victory that generated a mother lode was that it preserved Nadal’s perfect record on hardcourts this season. He is 22-0, a figure that would have seemed unthinkable in the years when Nadal’s most emblematic rival, Roger Federer, was winning five straight titles at the Open.
For now, Federer remains the career leader with 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but Monday’s victory thrusts Nadal ever more into the conversation about who deserves to be called the greatest player of this era.
“Let me enjoy today,” Nadal said with a grin, resisting the place-in-history questions. “For me is much more than what I ever thought, what I ever dreamed. I said that when I had a few Slams less, but is true.”
Nadal has won eight French Opens, two Wimbledons, two US Opens and one Australian Open. He also holds a winning record over every one of his major rivals, Federer of course included.
Djokovic, a 26-year-old Serb, has given him plenty of trouble: never more than in 2011 and early 2012 when he reeled off seven straight victories against the Spaniard and seemed to have extinguished some of Nadal’s self-belief and competitive fire.
But Nadal, a great tennis player as well as athlete and fighter, has now won six of the last seven. By the epic standards of their nearly six-hour final at the 2012 Australian Open, Monday’s match was a sprint at 3 hours 21 minutes. It also gave Nadal a huge payday: $2.6 million in prize money and an additional $1 million for winning the US Open Series.
“Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible,” Djokovic said. “Whatever he achieved so far in his career is something that everybody should respect, no question about it. I was saying before, he’s definitely one of the best tennis players ever to play the game.”
Djokovic, who has faced him 37 times and trails, 15-22, is particularly well placed to know his strengths and weaknesses. They have played more than any men in the Open era, though less than rivals from earlier eras like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, the Australians who played more than 100 times.
Laver, the only man to complete two Grand Slams by winning all four major titles in a calendar year, was on hand to flip the coin before the start of the match.
Nadal concurred that he had rarely played better than he did in the opening set, breaking Djokovic twice and striking the ball with consistent venom and precision. When it ended after 42 minutes, Nadal said he went to his chair and thought that the match was beginning “now” because he believed there was no chance of sustaining that level and that edge for two more sets in a row.
That proved true, as Djokovic began taking greater risks with his forehand in the second set and pushing Nadal back from the baseline to a position more familiar to those who watched Nadal play on quick hardcourts in the early years of his career.
Djokovic finally broke Nadal’s serve in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead, although it required him to win a 54-shot rally. “I played especially against Rafa on different surfaces and different occasions points like this where you feel that there is the last drop of energy you need to use in order to win the point,” Djokovic said. “Sometimes, I was winning those points; sometimes him. It’s what we do when play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit. That’s the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end.”
It should thus have come as no surprise that Nadal, instead of letting his shoulders slump, came right out and broke him back in the next game. As Djokovic sat in his chair on the changeover, he screamed in frustration and anger, his lean body shaking. He then slapped himself on both thighs and proceeded to go back out himself and take the next two games and even the match at one set apiece.
That could have been the cue for another marathon final, but Nadal had too many answers this time, and although Djokovic carried his momentum into the third set, taking a 3-1 lead and a 0-40 lead in the next game on Nadal’s serve, the Spaniard willed and hustled his way free.
A set that looked as if it belonged to Djokovic was soon repossessed by Nadal. The No. 1 ranking presumably will come next later this year.
But numbers are not the heart of the matter with Nadal. “During the match, the thought that kept coming to my mind was that I was watching a genius,” said Wojtek Fibak, the former Polish player hired by Djokovic as a coaching consultant. “It’s like Chopin who was born to compose music. Nadal was born to win tennis matches.”
The Court of Champions awaits.