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Steve Flink: Nadal makes history once more

9/14/2010 11:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS--   This was a night of milestones across the board for the one and only Rafael Nadal, and a golden moment he will cherish forever. He established himself as only the seventh man in tennis history to achieve a career Grand Slam by securing his first U.S. Open title with a hard fought and noble four set victory over a top of the line Novak Djokovic. He became the first Spaniard to capture the U.S. Open men’s title since another left-hander named Manolo Orantes toppled Jimmy Connors on the clay at Forest Hills 35 years ago. He set himself apart as the first man since Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1969 to take the French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open championships in the same season, but by taking the game’s three biggest tournaments in succession, Nadal’s Paris, Wimbledon, New York sweep was even more substantial. No one had ever done that on three different surfaces. Nadal joins Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer as one of only seven men ever to record a career Grand Slam. Moreover, Nadal is the first left-handed man to win the U.S., Open since John McEnroe in 1984.

But those are simply the cold numbers and the irrefutable facts. When you are assessing Rafael Nadal and his U.S. Open triumph, it is essential to remember that here is one of the most admirable individuals ever to step on a tennis court, a champion with a heart and mind like no other, a competitor who is as unshakable as anyone who has ever played the sport. His mental toughness, tenacity, and temerity surpasses that of anyone I have ever seen play tennis. He is a champion among champions, an indefatigable warrior, a gladiator disguised as a tennis player. In plain and simple terms, Nadal is Nadal, and there has never been anyone quite like him in the world of sports. He imposes himself ceaselessly with a reservoir of willpower. He keeps refining, expanding and altering his game, shifting his technical and tactical emphasis. So many great players are harmed by their rigidity, but not Nadal. He is forever probing, striving, making certain to be more versatile.

The final with Djokovic was entirely absorbing, one of the most entertaining and highest quality finals I have ever seen at the Open. Nadal had not lost a set on his way to the championship match, while Djokovic had come off a bruising five set skirmish with five time champion Roger Federer. The 23-year-old Serbian had reached back with all of his resources to stave off Federer in a rousing finish, saving two match points at 4-5 in the fifth set and coming through to win one of the most important matches of his career. Had he taken on Nadal the following day as the schedule mandated, Djokovic would surely have been both physically and emotionally compromised, and he would have had all kinds of difficulties confronting the best player in the world under those circumstances.

But rain cancelled the Sunday final, and for the third year in a row the title match was played on Monday. Nadal was razor sharp at the outset, keeping his returns devastatingly deep, pounding his ground strokes with pace and precision, dictating play with authority. Nadal went after Djokovic ruthlessly in the opening game and broke the No. 3 seed at the cost of only one point. Nadal quickly held and then reached 0-30 in the third game. Had he broken again there and advanced to 3-0, Nadal would have been in awfully good shape, and Djokovic would have been in a state of disrepair.

Yet Djokovic raised his game significantly at that crucial moment, knowing the last thing he could afford to do at the start of the final would be to fall behind two service breaks. From 0-30 at 0-2, he served consecutive aces, held on when he had to, and then broke Nadal for 2-2 with a remarkable return game. The key point was at 30-30 when the Serbian won a magnificent 24 stroke exchange with a blistering inside-out forehand that the Spaniard could not answer. At 2-2, Djokovic was down 0-40, won four points in a row to reach game point, then fought off two more break points before Nadal took that pivotal game with a spectacular inside-out forehand winner.

Nadal—boosted considerably by a 132 MPH serve that Djokovic could not return—surged to 4-2. He held at love for 5-3 and then served out the set confidently at 15, keeping Djokovic at bay with his strategic clarity and his high intensity. The Spaniard was up a set, and he is nearly impossible to beat once he has taken an opening set at a major. Only David Ferrer at the 2007 U.S. Open has toppled Nadal after the incomparable left-hander has garnered the opening set in a Grand Slam event. But as Nadal wrapped up the first set with Djokovic, the bright skies that had greeted the players when they walked on court for the 4PM clash had darkened considerably, and soon Nadal’s bright beginning was offset by a Djokovic who was just hitting his stride.

Early in the second, one crucial point seemed to send Nadal in the wrong direction and propel Djokovic toward a new and loftier level. Djokovic was serving at 1-1, 30-30. He miss-hit an inside-out forehand, and his shot landed accidentally short, near the sideline. Nadal was caught off guard and ended up losing that point. Had Djokovic’s forehand gone out, Nadal would have been at break point. Instead, Djokovic held on for 2-1. He then broke Nadal at love after the Spaniard double faulted to trail 0-40, and the Serbian promptly held at love for 4-1. Djokovic was striking the ball brilliantly through this stretch. By the time Nadal fell behind 0-15 in the sixth game, Djokovic had improbably taken eleven points in a row, a rare feat against someone haled for his unwavering concentration and consistency.

But Nadal was not going to concede that set from a break down. He held for 2-4 and then sensed he could work his way back into the set. With the sound of thunder in the background and storms moving closer to Arthur Ashe Stadium, Nadal was down 40-15 in the seventh game but he refused to let go at that critical juncture. On his third break point, Nadal used his slice backhand cleverly to create an opening for a two-handed topspin drive down the line. Djokovic was defenseless. Nadal had broken back for 3-4, and he kept the momentum to reach 4-4. With rain starting to fall, the two players were locked at 30-30 in the ninth game when the match was halted.

That was at 6: 01 P.M. At 7: 58—nearly two hours later—the contest continued. Djokovic was swinging freely and confidently off both sides, and his flat forehand was particularly effective. He held after two deuces for 5-4, but Nadal got back to 5-5. Djokovic knew that going down two sets to love was not an option for him. At 5-5, 40-30 he hit an immaculate backhand drop shot approach down the line, and it was a clean winner. On he moved to 6-5. A tie-break seemed almost certain, especially when Nadal served an ace wide in the deuce court for 30-15 in the following game. But Djokovic took the next two points, and Nadal found himself serving at 5-6, 30-40, set point down. He sent a well placed, 122 MPH first serve down the T, but Djokovic demonstrated why he is one of the game’s greatest returners. He made an astonishingly deep return down the middle, rocking Nadal back on his heels. Nadal understandably missed a forehand. Djokovic jubilantly pumped his fists. He was back to one set all. He was very much in the match.

Nadal was not happy about his plight. He had rallied from a break down but the set had still slipped from his grasp. The crowd was delighted, realizing they would see at least four sets, hoping that both players would now force each other to raise the stakes. They did just that. Nadal respects Djokovic immensely as a player and a human being, but he detested losing that set. The Spaniard had the chance to become the first man since Neale Fraser in 1960 to win the U.S. [Open] Championships without conceding a set in the tournament, but now that opportunity was over. Moreover, Nadal fully understood that Djokovic was starting to believe he could win the match. That called for Nadal to find a new level of intensity, and at the outset of the third he managed to do precisely that.

The most surprising statistic in the second set was this: Nadal made 13 unforced errors while Djokovic had only 7. In addition to that, Nadal lost his serve twice, which meant that Djokovic had broken him three times in the match. In the entire tournament up until then, Nadal had only been broken twice in six matches. But Nadal knew that it was time to make amends. After Djokovic held easily in the opening game of the third set, Nadal won his serve at love for 1-1 in commanding fashion. Nadal broke Djokovic in the third game, taking the key point of that game to reach 0-40 by defending mightily and then angling a backhand pass acutely crosscourt for a startling winner.

Nadal was soaring now. Serving with new balls, he held at love for 3-1, connecting with three out of four first serves. At 30-0, Nadal sent a 131 MPH first serve to Djokovic’s backhand side, got a relatively weak return from the Serbian, and then cracked an inside out forehand winner. At 40-0, he released a 126 MPH service winner to the forehand. He was playing his best tennis of the match, but Djokovic was not about to surrender, not for an instant. At 1-3, Djokovic saved three break points and held, but Nadal responded with a love game on serve. At 2-4, Djokovic erased five more break points against him. He was taking advantage of the cool night air, walloping his inside-out forehand relentlessly deep, taking calculated risks that were working largely in his favor.

 Nadal held at 30 for 5-3, but Djokovic would not go away. He held for 4-5, and made Nadal serve out the set. At 15-15 in that all important tenth game, Nadal missed a difficult running forehand to go behind 15-30. Djokovic was exhilarated, as was the crowd. He had an unexpected opening to break back for 5-5, but Nadal wiped away that chance with three impeccable swings of the racket. He swung his slice serve wide at 101 MPH and Djokovic had no play on the return. It was 30-30. Then Nadal cracked a 126 MPH flat serve out wide in the deuce court for an ace, and that made it 40-30. Once again, he sliced his first serve wide and placed it perfectly, and Djokovic had no chance to make the return. That clutch serving display put Nadal ahead two sets to one, and he never looked back.

Djokovic maintained an excellent attitude and demeanor, saving a break point as he moved ahead 1-0 in the fourth. But Nadal realized Djokovic was nearing his physical limits and the Serbian was no longer able to sustain his big hitting without making clusters of unforced errors. Nadal aced Djokovic wide in the deuce court to hold at 15 for 1-1 and then broke Djokovic for 2-1 as the Serbian’s forehand clipped the net cord and travelled long. Nadal recognized that he was closing in on a large piece of history. He aced Djokovic twice in a love game to advance to 3-1 and broke Djokovic again for 4-1 at the cost of only one point.

Yet Djokovic—despite his growing fatigue, regardless of his state of mind—did not stop competing. With Nadal serving at 4-1, Djokovic reached break point with an aggressive stream of strokes catching the Spaniard somewhat by surprise. But Nadal saved that break point with a trademark inside-out forehand provoking an error from Djokovic. He held for 5-1, and two games later served for the match. The penultimate point of the match was vintage Nadal. He chased down a forehand drop volley from Djokovic and curled a passing shot off the forehand down the line, clipping the baseline for a stunning winner. It was match point, and moments later Nadal had the title he had coveted so much all year when Djokovic erred off the forehand. Victory to Nadal 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.

After taking full advantage of a good draw—Nadal did not have to play either David Nalbandian in the quarterfinals or Andy Murray in the semifinals—the Spaniard had the luxury of conserving emotional and physical energy and he benefitted from that good fortune. Djokovic was playing some of the finest if not the best tennis of his career at this U.S. Open, and he pushed Nadal nearly to the hilt in this exceedingly well played final. Nadal believes that his victory over Djokovic was the best tennis match he has ever played at the U.S. Open, and he may well be right.

Djokovic forced Nadal to keep maintain an inordinately high level of play, especially in the second and third sets of the contest. The Serbian demonstrated that his return of serve—at least on hard courts—is probably the best in the game, or at least right up there near the top. He also competed with vigor and panache, fighting off 20 of 26 break points, displaying amazing resolve. In the end, a few key things enabled Nadal to seize control of the battle. He used the sliced serve wide with increasing accuracy and conviction over the last two sets. After getting broken three times in the first two sets, he never lost his serve again.

Nadal had turned his first serve into a much bigger weapon than ever before during this Open, adding another dimension to his game. His average first serve speed  of 117 MPH against Djokovic was typical of how he served the whole tournament, as was his fastest serve of 132 MPH. But Djokovic read’s big serves remarkably well and his returns off of Nadal’s highest velocity deliveries were at times astounding. Nadal realized as the match wore on that he needed to drag Djokovic wider and wider in the Ad Court with the heavy slice serve, and that was crucial to his cause. Furthermore, Nadal was boosted over the last two sets by his magnificent court coverage and ball control. He made only ni9ne unforced errors in the third set and just two in the fourth. Nadal also got to the net at all of the right times, winning 16 of 20 points.

He beat a top of the line Djokovic emphatically in the end, but it was a terrific tennis match. Djokovic had nothing to be ashamed about, and he is going to have a great 2011 campaign. As for Nadal, he is heading for a high place in history. He now has captured nine Grand Slam championships, and he has moved ahead of such luminaries as Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and Ken Rosewall. Bill Tilden won ten majors and Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg each secured eleven. Nadal is destined to pass all of those towering figures, and almost inevitably he will then pass Roy Emerson, who won twelve Grand Slam championships.

He will then set his sights on the two all-time leaders among the men: Roger Federer at 16 and Pete Sampras at 14. The feeling grows that Nadal will have a good chance to move past Sampras, and he will probably surpass Federer one day as well. He is only 24. He never looks beyond the next big title, which is the secret to his success. But as long as his body holds up, Nadal has at least four big years ahead of him. For the time being, he should sit back and savor this U.S. Open victory. Rafael Nadal at last showed the New York fans what he looks like when he is at the top of his hard court game, and I salute him for a job remarkably well done.

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