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Steve Flink: Rafa proves he is the real number 1

9/9/2013 11:59:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS— It has been said frequently by the cognoscenti of tennis that the most precious commodity of all is confidence. Great players build up deepest kind of inner belief when they are winning one big prize after another. They know they are not absolutely invincible, and yet it is as if they are wearing some kind of protective shield that makes them virtually unstoppable at times. They are creatures of habit, and the best of the breed seem immune to pressure when they are moving through golden stretches in their careers.

Rafael Nadal had already made a stupendous comeback in 2013, returning after seven months away from the sport to record nine tournament triumphs in twelve events leading up to the U.S. Open. He was unbeaten in three hard court events and 21 matches on that surface this season as he approached his final round appointment tonight with Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open. He had lost only one set en route to the championship match. He was riding remarkably high, building up his inner belief step by step and match by match, trying to prime for the last major of 2013. At the outset of the skirmish with the 2011 Open champion, Nadal seemed to be heading for a potentially decisive triumph, but in the end he had to fight furiously to overcome a man who moved into the zone and played the game with ruthless persuasion long enough to discourage most mortal men.

But Nadal, of course, is not really mortal; in fact, he is on his way to immortality. I have been watching this game for fifty years now, witnessing all of the great champions from Rod Laver to Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe to Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors to Roger Federer. I don’t have the space here to mention many other standouts I have seen. But this man Nadal is in a class of his own for mental toughness. In all my years of observing the game, he is the player I hold in the highest regard as a competitor of the highest order. He is unshakable. He reaches back with all of his resources and finds ways to win, no matter how dire the circumstances, regardless of how well or badly he may be playing. Nadal is the quintessential competitor, the player with the largest supply of willpower, the individual who has moved above and beyond all of his rivals in navigating his way through rough waters and finding safe harbors with regularity.

Nadal and Djokovic were meeting for the sixth time in a Grand Slam tournament final. The Spaniard had been victorious over his Serbian adversary in the finals of the 2010 U.S. Open and the 2012 French Open, but Djokovic had prevailed in 2011 at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and again at the 2012 Australian Open in their most renowned showdown. For the third time in four years, they were colliding in the championship match at the last Grand Slam event of the season. Nadal was seeking a 13th major title while Djokovic was in pursuit of a seventh “Big Four” crown. To say the least, the outcome of this contest was critical to both combatants.

At the outset, Nadal stood his ground ably from the baseline when Djokovic came at him with fervor in the first few games of the match. Djokovic was striking the ball with great depth and precision in the early stages, holding at 30 in the opening game of the match with an ace down then T at 40-30. He then took Nadal to deuce in the second game before Nadal held on tenuously. At that moment, Djokovic looked like the more self-assured player in the windswept Arthur Ashe Stadium. In the third game, Djokovic saved a break point, had a game point, but then was broken as Nadal released a trademark inside out forehand winner off a miss-hit shot from the Serbian. Nadal was down 0-30 in the fourth game. They went to deuce, but then Nadal outdueled Djokovic in a high octane 27 stroke exchange. He held on for 3-1 before Djokovic held easily in the fifth game.

Thereafter, the set turned entirely in Nadal’s favor. He held at love for 4-2 with a nifty backhand slice crosscourt winner off a drop shot from Djokovic, and then broke Djokovic at love in the seventh game. He was playing every point purposefully. Serving for the set at 5-2, Nadal trailed 15-30 but he swept the next three points to seal the set emphatically 6-2. He had taken 12 of the last 14 points to capture that opening set. Djokovic seemed out of sorts at that juncture, but Nadal played beautifully. And yet, he knew that Djokovic would inevitably raise his game and make a serious go of it in the second set, and that is exactly what happened.

Djokovic held in the opening game of that second set and had Nadal at 15-40 in the second game, but Nadal eventually held on for 1-1. Djokovic, however, was finding his range and timing the ball impeccably off the ground. He held at 15 for 2-1 before Nadal gained a love hold to make it 2-2. Djokovic moved swiftly to 3-2 with an ace out wide at 40-15, and then came one of the most magical moments of the match. With Nadal serving at 2-3, 30-40, the two players contested a magnificent 54 stoke rally. Nadal seemed to have Djokovic on the ropes time and again in that exchange, but the Serbian’s defense was extraordinary. He roused the crowd enormously when he took that spectacular point, establishing a 4-2 lead, but Djokovic had to serve into the wind in the seventh game. He trailed 0-40, made it back to 30-40, but Nadal broke back with a penetrating inside-out forehand that was unmanageable for the Serbian.

Back on serve at 3-4, Nadal changed ends, but now he had to serve into the wind. He built a 40-15 lead but drove an aggressive forehand crosscourt long, and then Djokovic cracked a devastating inside out forehand winner for deuce. Nadal would have four more game points, but Djokovic was competing with fury now, unrelentingly testing the Spaniard in the rallies and picking him apart. At break point, Nadal hit a backhand drop shot down the line into the wind, but Djokovic read that play perfectly, driving a scintillating crosscourt backhand into the clear for a winner. The Serbian was ahead 5-3. Down 15-30 in the ninth game, Djokovic remained resolute and in total command of his ground game. He won three points in a row for the set, concluding it with a clean backhand winner up the line.

It was one set all, but the complexion of this match had been altered radically. Djokovic was an entirely different man, in control of his surroundings, precise and overpowering, full of conviction. He broke Nadal at love in the opening game of the third set and then held from deuce for 2-0, ending that game with an ace down the T. He had won four games in a row and his tennis was arresting and unanswerable. Nadal had reached a crisis, a moment when he had to find a way to weather a very difficult storm, a make or break juncture when he had to assert himself or risk the possibility that Djokovic might pull away inexorably. Djokovic reached break point in the third game, and had he sealed that opportunity he would have led by two breaks and almost certainly would have swept through the third set. But Nadal won an entertaining rally when Djokovic drove a two-hander long. The Spaniard then produced a forehand drop shot winner and held for 1-2 when Djokovic drove another backhand long. Nadal turned to look at his family at courtside, knowing he had found a way to halt Djokovic’s momentum just in the nick of time. Djokovic held easily for 3-1, but Nadal held for 2-3. After Djokovic had a game point for 4-2, Nadal raised the trajectory on his backhand returns and drew some important errors from Djokovic. Nadal made it back to 3-3 as the crowd in Ashe Stadium applauded him unabashedly.

And yet, Nadal faced considerable danger ahead. At 4-4, he was down 0-40, but he served wide to the backhand and set up a crucial inside out forehand winner. He then won a 21 stroke rally, using the sliced backhand to full effect as Djokovic netted a forehand. Then he aced Djokovic at 125 MPH down the T. He reached game point and then missed a forehand down the line off a scorching return from the Serbian, but the Spaniard responded with an excellent inside-out forehand that coaxed an error from Djokovic. At game point for the second time, he approached on the Djokovic forehand and the Serbian’s topspin lob was short. Nadal demolished it with an overhead winner, moving to 5-4. In the following game, Djokovic led 30-0, but no lead is ever safe with Rafael Nadal on the other side of the net.

Nadal won a spectacular point to get back to 30-15, using a topspin lob off the backhand down the line to push Djokovic back from the net. Nadal would draw Djokovic forward and then put away a forehand volley, to the delight of an appreciative audience. Djokovic then missed off the forehand side for 30-30. At 30-30, he hit an excellent serve down the T and Nadal could barely get it back on the stretch off the forehand. His return landed short near the sideline but Djokovic was anxious, netting a forehand. And so it was set point for Nadal. They had a spirited 18 stroke rally, but Nadal found just the opening he needed, driving a terrific forehand down the line, forcing Djokovic into an errant forehand long. Nadal had rallied improbably to take the pivotal third set, despite being in so many precarious positions. It was a set he could not afford to lose, and a set Djokovic clearly believed he was going to win.

That was Rafael Nadal at his very best, salvaging a seemingly lost cause, playing the big points with high intensity and deep concentration, stifling Djokovic at the turning point of the match. In the opening game of the fourth set, Nadal served into the wind and was down break point. He made certain not to miss and Djokovic then went for a forehand inside-in, sending that shot wide. The Serbian had a second break point opportunity but he could not keep a backhand crosscourt return off a wide serve in play. At deuce, Nadal laced an exquisite low backhand passing shot crosscourt that Djokovic could not handle on the forehand volley. Now at game point, Nadal camped underneath a sky high defensive lob from Djokovic, set himself up immaculately, and put away the bounce smash unhesitatingly.

That was a crucial hold for Nadal. He quickly advanced to 0-40 on Djokovic’s serve in the second game of that fourth set. Djokovic saved two break points, but Nadal sealed the break for 2-0 with a dazzling forehand down the line winner off a scorching inside-out forehand from Djokovic. Djokovic had come at Nadal with one of his favorite shots, but the Spaniard had anticipated that stroke remarkably well. Nadal held at 15 for 3-0, playing that game with cool precision and meticulous care. Djokovic was distraught but he managed to hold at 15 for 1-3. Serving into the wind, Nadal was down 0-15 when he prevailed in a 25 stroke rally. At the end of that brilliant point, he sent a low short slice down the line and Djokovic made a fine backhand approach up the line. Nadal released a gorgeous backhand passing shot winner. He held at 15 for 4-1. Djokovic reached 30-30 in the sixth game, but his backhand approach went wide. Nadal applied the pressure at break point, approaching the net, playing a backhand drop volley down the middle. He did not make it as fine as he intended, but Djokovic still had to dig out the low ball and try to pass him crosscourt off the backhand. He missed it wide.

Nadal served for the match at 5-1. As if to remind everyone that he was still out there competing, Djokovic opened that game with a crackling backhand return winner, but Nadal was unswerving now, ready to wrap up the contest, eager to get it done confidently. A forehand volley winner took him to 15-15, a forehand winner down the line made it 30-15, and then a 119 MPH service winner into the body made it 40-15. Djokovic missed one last time off the forehand, and the redoubtable Nadal had made it through another major in style.

He was soon sprawled out on the court, sobbing away freely, celebrating one of the most emotional Grand Slam championship victories of his career. He had approached this immensely important match with the right mindset, playing aggressive tennis on his own terms, defending steadfastly, stepping into the court commandingly at times, but always weighing the percentages, making certain not to give much away. In the end, the strategy worked beautifully. He made only 20 unforced errors in four sets while Djokovic had 53. Nadal won 56% of his second serve points and Djokovic took only 48% of the points on his second serve.

The first three sets of this battle were outstanding. It was a better final than either of their two previous Open championship round showdowns. But Nadal’s courageous stand in the third set had made all the difference. He took the heart out of Djokovic, which was understandable under the circumstances but highly unusual these days. In plain and simple terms, Nadal was an authentic champion, performing astoundingly under pressure, finding a way to overcome Djokovic even when he soared to another level. He willed his way once more to a major title. He did it in his own inimitable style. And now he has almost guaranteed himself the year-end No. 1 world ranking.

For Nadal, this was a very significant triumph. He secured a 13th major title. He now has moved past Roy Emerson to third on the all-time men’s list behind Roger Federer (with 17) and Pete Sampras, who took 14 Grand Slam championships. Nadal demonstrated once more how difficult it is to stop him when it counts. He has now captured 13 of his 18 major finals, while Djokovic slips to 6-6. Nadal will surely head into 2014 with unbridled confidence. He has now taken ten singles titles across an abbreviated 2013 campaign, winning two majors in 2013, losing only three matches thus far. He has raised his career record to 22-15 over Djokovic, whom he has defeated six of the last seven times after losing to the Serbian seven consecutive times in 2011 and 2012.

It is no longer beyond the realm of possibility that Nadal might equal or surpass Federer’s mark at the majors. The next two years will determine it all. But, for the time being at least, he can celebrate one of the grittiest triumphs of his career. Rafael Nadal is a singularly compelling player in my view, and every time he succeeds tennis seems better for it. His latest victory at the U.S. Open was no exception to that rule.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.