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Steve Flink: 2013 US Open Retrospective

9/12/2013 2:00:00 PM

After taking a day to relax and reflect on the 2013 U.S. Open, I am ready to offer my take on a tournament that concluded fittingly with the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in both the men’s and women’s fields meeting in both finals. It all came down to Rafael Nadal besting Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams toppling Victoria Azarenka in the championship matches, and both contests featured stirring reversals of fortune in the middle before the victors demonstrated their supremacy in the end. This was, of course, the last major of the season, and those finals showcased the game’s greatest male and female players. I thought that was precisely the way it should be.

There was much to savor from this hard court festival on the hard courts in New York. Let’s recollect the people, matches and events that made the fortnight so memorable and enjoyable.

NADAL CLIMBS HISTORICAL LADDER WITH SECOND OPEN TRIUMPH

Three years after capturing his first U.S. Open in 2010, Rafael Nadal garnered a second crown in Arthur Ashe Stadium, capping an astonishing run through summer. He had already taken the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles in Montreal and Cincinnati, and that provided considerable historical momentum as he headed to New York. In 1998, the serve-and-volley practitioner Patrick Rafter was victorious in Canada and Cincinnati, and then successfully defended his Open title. Five years later, Andy Roddick ruled in those two prestigious hard court events, and he went on to rule at the Open. The only other player to sweep the Canada-Cincinnati double was Andre Agassi in 1995. Agassi also took two other hard court American events and won 26 consecutive matches before losing the Open final to a much better big match player named Pete Sampras.

Historical precedent told us that Nadal would be awfully tough to beat at this Open after such a commanding period leading up to it. Moreover, when Nadal was the victor at the 2010 Open, he was the game’s dominant player. That was his third consecutive major title victory of the year. It was similar for Djokovic during his spectacular 2011 campaign. He had won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year, and had suffered only two losses en route to Flushing Meadows, while winning nine tournaments.

The Djokovic 2011 time of utter domination was similar in some ways to Nadal’s 2013 season. Nadal had won nine of the twelve tournaments he had played this year, including the French Open. Soaring numbers like those do not alone lead to success at the U.S. Open, but they do not hurt. Nadal’s level of confidence was extraordinary. In the end, the depth of his inner belief and his vaunted mental toughness were the telling factors in New York. Even if the immensely modest Spaniard did not shout it out, Nadal quietly believed he could do it. Ultimately, his win made a lot of sense in the context of what he had done to pave the way toward a possible triumph.

And so he now has 13 majors in his shining collection, and the win at the Open provides some balance to his remarkable record. He has secured a record eight French Opens, taking two Wimbledon titles and now two in New York. All he needs to become a multiple champion at every major would be another victory at the Australian Open, which he won in 2009. Only Roger Federer (with 17 majors) and Sampras (with 14) stand above Nadal on the all-time list for most singles titles won at the majors. So where does Nadal belong among the greatest players ever in tennis? How far can he go from here?

Those questions yield no easy answers. Among the best players of all time, he has now brought himself seriously into the discussion. I believe if he moves past Sampras (which he has an excellent chance to do) and, in turn, catches or surpasses Federer (which has become a plausible scenario), he will absolutely deserve to proudly wear the greatest ever label. When you look at his head-to-head records against his premier rivals, they are astounding: 21-10 against Federer, 22-15 versus Djokovic, 13-5 over Murray. His challenge is to win as many Grand Slam championships as possible across the next three years. He is only 27. He will surely win at least one more time at Roland Garros, and perhaps more than that. Another Australian Open seems very much in the cards. Winning Wimbledon again—even when taking into account his perennial knee problems—is not out of the question. And he gained so much ground this year as a hard court player (winning four tournaments, losing no matches, sweeping all 22 matches he has played on that surface so far in 2013) makes me believe he can rule again at the U.S. Open.
Let’s see what transpires over the next three seasons. The feeling grows that Nadal just might earn eventual recognition in many quarters as the best ever. Meanwhile, I ran into Pancho Segura right after the final, and he told me, “Nadal is the best left-hander ever. Who could beat him?”

WILLIAMS CLIMBS HISTORICAL WITH HER FIFTH US. OPEN WIN

In just a couple of weeks, Serena Williams will turn 32. She fully comprehends the limitations of time, realizes that she can’t count on performing at the peak of her powers for more than a few more years, and is more single-minded about her tennis than ever before. Serena, like Nadal, had tasted more than her share of important victories in 2013 before coming to the Open. She had won eight tournaments and 60 of 64 matches. But, curiously, Serena had won only one of the three Grand Slam championships this season, securing a second crown at Roland Garros. She had fallen in the quarters at the Australian Open against Sloane Stephens, playing hurt during that contest. At Wimbledon in the round of 16, she could not close out Sabine Lisicki despite leading 3-0 and 4-1 in the final set, collapsing with nerves down the stretch as the German raised her game decidedly.

The U.S. Open was, therefore, a particularly significant tournament for Williams, who would not have been satisfied with only one major for 2013. Succeeding at the Open gave the American a 17th major title. Margaret Court is the all-time female leader for singles titles with 24, and Steffi Graf is in second place at 22. Next on the list is Helen Wills Moody, who captured 19 between 1923 and 1938. And right behind Wills Moody are none other than Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert. Each of these towering champions won 18 majors.

Serena will inevitably move past Evert, Navratilova and Wills Moody. I believe she could equal or surpass Graf. Catching up to Court may be too much for Williams. But much will depend on how she copes with her anxiety. She freely admits that she gets exceedingly nervous more often these days. That could cost her dearly on some crucial occasions.

Where should Williams be placed among the best women players of all time? In my view, the three greatest players now are Graf, Navratilova and Evert, in that order. Williams has never displayed the consistency that those three women demonstrated over the years. Graf finished eight years as the best woman player in the world, and was the last woman to win the Grand Slam in 1988. Navratilova ended seven years at No. 1 in the world, and celebrated a remarkable stretch (from 1982-86) when she took 70 of 84 tournaments she played, losing only 14 matches in that sterling five year span. Evert was the best woman player for seven years, had the best match winning percentage of all modern players (90%), won at least one major for a record 13 years in a row (1974-86), and set another record by winning 125 consecutive matches on clay.

Only in 2002 and 2009 has Williams finished a year as the No. 1 ranked woman in the world, and that is shocking in many ways. She will clearly finish 2013 at the top, but what will matter in the long run the most is amassing more majors than anyone, with the possible exception of Court, who has an inflated record. My top five at the moment are Graf, Navratilova, Evert, Wills Moody and Court. But Serena is closing in on the top five. 

MEN’S FINAL

Nadal versus Djokovic has become the second most celebrated rivalry in this generation, right behind Nadal-Federer. Their Open skirmish was the 37th time they have played against each other, a record among the men in the Open Era which commenced in 1968. They first clashed seven years ago at Roland Garros in the quarters. Until 2010, most of their duels at the Grand Slam championships were semifinals, but then they clashed in their first major final at Flushing Meadows three years ago, with Nadal the victor. A year later, Djokovic turned the tables on the Spaniard in New York. In fact, from Wimbledon in 2011 through the French Open of 2012, they met in four straight major finals, an unprecedented development in the men’s game. Djokovic won the first three of those battles—including their epic five hour, 53 minute struggle at the 2012 Australian Open—before Nadal upended the Serbian in 2012 at the French Open.

The Nadal-Djokovic classic five set semifinal at Roland Garros this year should have been the final. In any case, their U.S. Open final this time was an eagerly anticipated occasion. After Djokovic come out of the blocks with more force and gusto—holding serve and then reaching deuce on the Spaniard’s serve in the second game—Nadal found his range and largely controlled the tempo of the first set. From 1-1, he lost only one more game. Across the last three games, he took 12 of 14 points. Nadal took apart an unsettled Djokovic 6-2. But he knew that the Serbian would inevitably raise his game in the second set, and that is exactly what happened.
The match changed course in the sixth game of that second set. Nadal was serving at 2-3, 30-40 when the two incomparable ground-stroking stalwarts became embroiled in a stirring 54 stroke exchange. At the end of that rally, Nadal thundered a couple of shots that only Djokovic could have answered. First, the Spaniard laced a backhand crosscourt, and that opened up the court for his deadly forehand crosscourt. But Djokovic got that one back deep off his remarkable two-handed backhand, catching Nadal off guard. Nadal netted a backhand. Djokovic raised his arms joyously, the crowd rose and applauded the players unabashedly, and Djokovic had a strong foothold in the match, having built a 4-2 lead. He was serving into the wind, however, and Nadal broke back in the following game. But Nadal had to serve the eighth game from the same side, and could not exploit a 40-15 lead and six game points in all. Djokovic had found his rhythm and feel on the return of serve, and no matter where Nadal served or what the spin or velocity, Djokovic had an answer.

Djokovic served out the second set, winning it 6-3. He then bolted to 2-0 in the third set lead. Djokovic was playing masterfully and almost unconsciously from the backcourt, and he seemed fully capable of making this magical spell last long enough for him to blast his way straight to the title.  Djokovic had Nadal down break point in the third game after making a stupendous forehand return winner up the line. They had a high quality 12 stroke rally, with Nadal fending off a deep return from Djokovic. The Serbian lost that point with a backhand crosscourt long off a heavy topspin forehand crosscourt from the Spaniard. On the following point—a 15 stroke rally featuring some big hitting from the Serbian—Nadal threw in a brilliant inside out forehand drop shot winner that was set up by a backhand crosscourt landing inches from the baseline. At game point, Nadal drove a crosscourt forehand with extra pace that drew another crosscourt backhand long from Djokovic.

That was a critical hold for the Spaniard, who knew that his opponent was becoming dangerously confident. Nadal turned to look at his family and friends in their courtside box before sitting down at the changeover. The look on his face clearly said, “Don’t worry. I can still win this match.”  Nadal realized that the third set would have been nearly impossible for him to win if he had not salvaged that third game. Although Djokovic advanced to 3-1, Nadal broke back for 3-3. And yet, before he knew it, Nadal was in a dark corner. At 4-4, 0-15, he totally lost his footing trying to set up for a forehand from behind the baseline in the middle of the court. He was not hurt, but he was down 0-30. Djokovic followed with a return that was released with astounding depth, right on the baseline. Nadal had no play off the backhand. It was 0-40.
Once more, Nadal was in a terrible bind, triple break point down, with Djokovic poised to break and possibly serve out the set. But the Spaniard played his finest clutch tennis of the match right then and there. He served to the Djokovic backhand, and the return came back with reasonable depth. With his weight falling backwards, Nadal still managed to make a clean winner, down the line off the forehand. The next rally lasted 21 strokes, but Djokovic blinked, netting a forehand down the line. And then Nadal cracked a 125 MPH flat serve down the T for an ace. It was deuce.

Nadal advanced to game point but Djokovic knotted the score at deuce. Nadal, however, was unrelenting, pounding an inside-out forehand to elicit a forehand long from the Serbian. At game point for the second time, Nadal went on the attack. Serving wide to the backhand, he ventured forward, approaching down the line off the forehand. Djokovic attempted a topspin lob, but it was way too short. Nadal feasted on the overhead, devouring it unhesitatingly. He had achieved one of the great clutch holds of his career at a seminal moment, moving to 5-4.

And yet, Djokovic opened the tenth game with a pair of scorching forehand winners for 30-0. The next point was breathtaking. In this 16 shot exchange, Djokovic approached off a backhand slice, and Nadal sent a backhand topspin lob down the line. Djokovic handled the high backhand volley nicely, but Nadal had pushed him away from the net. The Spaniard then drove a forehand up the line that set up a backhand drop shot down the line. Djokovic got that ball back, but the court was wide open for Nadal to deposit a forehand volley winner down the line. Perhaps shaken, Djokovic made an unforced error off the forehand and it was 30-30. The Serbian released an excellent first serve down the T, which Nadal somehow got back off the forehand. His shot lacked depth but Djokovic was indecisive, netting a forehand crosscourt. At 30-40, the two warriors had a bruising 18 stroke rally. Nadal’s depth throughout the exchange was commendable. He won that point with a devastatingly effective forehand down the line, hit at a high trajectory deep into the court. Djokovic was pressured into a forehand down line error.
Nadal had survived a crisis, and with very little help from Djokovic. The Spaniard let two sets to one, and Djokovic was clearly confounded that he was not in the lead. At 30-30 in the first game of the fourth, Nadal sliced an immaculate backhand drop shot low down the line, but somehow Djokovic got there and angled a backhand crosscourt at an acute angle for a dazzling winner, as the crowd cheered him on effusively. But Djokovic missed an inside-in forehand to make it deuce. The Serbian earned a second break point, but Nadal erased it swiftly with a wide slice serve provoking an errant backhand crosscourt return.

Djokovic remained aggressive, coming in on Nadal’s backhand. The Spaniard’s backhand crosscourt pass was very low and too good. Djokovic missed a difficult forehand volley long. At game point, Nadal moved forward and Djokovic lofted a sky high lob. Nadal took his time, got behind the ball, let it bounce, and put away the overhead emphatically. He had held on for 1-0, and never really looked back. Djokovic was disheartened, dropping his serve in the second game. After rallying from 0-40 to 30-40, he went for an inside out forehand, but Nadal read that play perfectly, and Djokovic did not do enough with that shot. Nadal laced a gorgeous forehand winner down the line to break for 2-0.

After both players held to make it 3-1 for the Spaniard, Nadal served into the wind and was down 0-15 in the fifth game. The next rally was 25 shots. Nadal sliced a short, low backhand down the line, and Djokovic handled it well, going down the line with his approach. But Nadal angled his passing shot acutely for a brilliant crosscourt winner. That was a backbreaking point for Djokovic. Nadal held at 15 for 4-1 and then broke Djokovic at 30 for 5-1. He held at 15 for the match, closing the account by taking 12 of the last 16 points. He had broken Djokovic’s will and spirit with his two part comeback in the third set. Nadal recorded a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory to even his career record in Grand Slam finals against Djokovic at 3-3. More importantly, Nadal improved his overall record in major finals to 13-5, while Djokovic suffered a sixth defeat in twelve final round appearances.

Furthermore, Nadal has now virtually assured himself of the No. 1 year on the year end Emirates ATP World Rankings. In the Race for London, Nadal has amassed 11,010 points, with Djokovic far behind at 7,970. Nadal’s Open triumph will allow him to play a lighter schedule if he wants over the autumn to preserve his knees for next year.

WOMEN’S FINAL

Williams and Azarenka has become the premier rivalry in the women’s game. Coming into 2013, Williams owned an 11-1 record against the world No. 2, but clearly Azarenka had been bolstered a year ago by nearly toppling Williams in the 2012 U.S. Open final. Azarenka came within two points of victory after establishing a 5-3 final set lead, but Serena rescued herself dynamically and captured four games in a row to get the victory. This year, however, Azarenka had taken two of three meetings with Williams, overcoming the American at Doha in the final and again in the championship match at Cincinnati, prevailing both times in exhilarating three set encounters.

Some seasoned observers believed that the two-time Australian Open champion might be ready to strike down her renowned adversary on this auspicious occasion in New York. Briefly, it seemed as if she would do just that. In the opening set, both players performed strikingly well in arduous conditions, with the wind blowing ferociously at times in Ashe Stadium. They exchanged breaks in the first couple of games, but the two players adjusted from there, got their bearings, and a gripping set unfolded. Azarenka was largely the better player from the baseline, measuring her shots beautifully, gauging the wind more persuasively than her adversary.

The set turned back toward the American in the tenth game. Serena was serving at 4-5. Azarenka seemed to have a sense that she could break and thus move out in front. She had a clear-eyed look, a spring in her step, a belief that she could pounce and prevail. Williams was tight. She opened that tenth game with a double fault, and served another double fault at 40-30. But Williams then drove a backhand winner down the line before Azarenka produced an exquisite backhand drop shot that was too good. The tennis here was outstanding. Williams engineered a backhand crosscourt winner but Azarenka clipped the sideline with a forehand return winner. It was deuce again.

Williams refused to buckle. She punched a backhand volley winner into the clear and then aced Azarenka down the T to make it 5-5. Azarenka took a 40-15 lead in the eleventh game, but Williams captured four points in a row for the break, two with outright winners, two with crackling backhands that Azarenka could not handle. Serving for the set, Williams was three for four on first serves, holding at love despite facing the wind.

Williams seemed to have the match in hand. She surged ahead 4-1 in the second set, establishing a two service break lead. But she missed three of six first serves in the sixth game, and was broken at 30. Yet she served for the match at 5-4 and reached 15-0, only to double fault. She would fall behind 15-40 and then missed a backhand approach long off a low ball. It was 5-5, but Williams broke and served for the match a second time at 6-5.

A service winner out wide to the backhand lifted Serena to 30-30, two points away from a straight set triumph. She released a 123 MPH first serve, but Azarenka’s return was magnificent and Williams was coaxed into an error. At 30-40, Williams double faulted tamely into the net as she served into a burdensome wind. On they went to a tie-break, with Williams leading 3-1. Azarenka battled back with fervor again. At 6-6, Williams was two points from winning again, but Azarenka’s second serve into the body was unmanageable for Williams.  Azarenka sealed the set on the next point for one set all, and the fans showered her with a rousing round of applause. A come from behind upset win for the 24-year old seemed entirely possible.

In the opening game of the third set, Williams trailed 0-30 but the American held on in that critical game. Although Azarenka made it to 1-1, that would be it for her. Williams broke for 3-1 and this time would not falter. She held for 4-1 at love on the strength of a 124 MPH service winner, a topspin lob winner, a 126 MPH ace down the T and a second serve ace. Williams closed it out comfortably from there, winning 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-1 to raise her record in major finals to 17-4. She never should have lost the second set after being up two breaks and serving for it twice, but her recovery in the third was impressive. As for Azarenka, her startling second set comeback was largely wasted.

GASQUET AND WAWRINKA REACH SEMIS AT A MAJOR FOR FIRST TIME

One of the fascinating features of this U.S. Open in the men’s draw was the high profile of the one-handed backhand. In the quarterfinals, four of the eight men displayed one-handed backhands. That was awfully refreshing, even if the final pitted two players with two-handers against each other.

In any case, this was a breakthrough tournament for both Richard Gasquet and Stanislas Wawrinka, a pair of toughened veterans who had always underachieved throughout their careers. Gasquet saved a match point in the fourth set and went on to beat the disappointing Milos Raonic in the round of 16. In the quarters, the Frenchman had a two sets to love lead before world No. 4 David Ferrer forced a fifth set. Gasquet, 27, got the early break and made it count, winning 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3. He lost in straight sets to Nadal, but his two impressive five set wins were encouraging.

As for Wawrinka, he out-dueled Marcos Baghdatis in four sets, upset No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych in another four set clash, and then removed defending champion Andy Murray in straight sets without even facing a break point. He had a two sets to one lead in the penultimate round against Djokovic before bowing out gallantly, ending the tournament in style. Wawrinka has improved his forehand markedly, worked hard on his second serve, and his court coverage is also better. He thoroughly deserved his slot in the semifinals, as did Gasquet. These two gifted shotmakers moved beyond themselves to a new level.

PENNETTA REACHES SEMIFINALS

The women’s semifinal lineup included three 31-year-old players: Williams, Na Li and Flavia Pennetta. Pennetta had a career best major, ousting four seeded players, enjoying herself immensely, producing top of the line tennis. She lost in a straight set semifinal to Azarenka, but her presence on the big stage was a boost for the tournament. Pennetta hits the ball cleanly off both sides, shapes her strategy clearly and effectively, defends skillfully but takes control of points frequently, and is a delight to watch. Her serve could be decidedly better; Azarenka broke her eight out of nine times in the semifinals. But she is a first rate tennis player who deserved the honor of being around for the latter stages of a major tournament. The Italian was revitalized after having wrist surgery in 2012. A graceful and stylish competitor, she played some of the finest tennis of her career.

JAMES BLAKE RETIRES

A year ago, Andy Roddick announced his retirement from tennis during the U.S. Open. This year, Roddick’s old friend and former Davis Cup teammate decided it was time for him to say goodbye. Blake, of course, was a player who built an enormous fan base. He always carried himself with dignity, competing with honor, performing with verve. His flat forehand was one of the game’s best during his era.

It was fitting that the 33-year-old would make his departure at the U.S. Open, where he made his Grand Slam tournament debut back in 1999. His two best showings at majors were quarterfinal appearances at the 2005 and 2006 U.S. Opens. In the former, he blasted the young Nadal off the court with a cavalcade of unstoppable forehands, and had a golden opportunity to reach the semifinals. Facing Andre Agassi under the lights, Blake established a two set lead with an explosive and ceaseless display of firepower, but Agassi somehow escaped to win in a fifth set tie-break. The following year, Blake was beaten in a high quality, four set contest by Federer.

Ranked No. 100 in the world, Blake lost this year in the first round to Ivo Karlovic, squandering a two sets to love lead, bowing in a fifth set tie-break. His decision to leave the game was wise, but he will be sorely missed by those who value fair play and good sportsmanship.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.