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Steve Flink: US Open Wrap 2010

9/16/2010 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Above and beyond anything or anyone else, the 2010 U.S. Open was a time to celebrate the sparkle, steadfastness and professionalism of Rafael Nadal, who realized a longtime dream by winning his first U.S. Open. In the end, the last major of the season belonged solely to this indefatigable Spaniard who had structured his year and his game in many ways to make certain he was ready to take charge in New York. But while Nadal was the ultimate warrior and an immensely popular champion, there were surely others who took away something substantial from the tournament. The highly appealing Kim Clijsters secured the women’s crown for the third time, defending her 2009 title convincingly, extending her unbeaten run at Flushing Meadows to 21 matches in a row dating back to her breakthrough triumph in 2005. Novak Djokovic reached his second U.S. Open final by playing his finest tennis of the year, giving himself a much needed confidence boost. Meanwhile, a pair of Spaniards named Verdasco and Ferrer and a young American called Harrison all gave fans much to shout about.

Nadal, of course, was a man on a mission. He had played seven previous U.S. Opens, and the best he had done was to reach the penultimate round in 2008 and 2009. Ever since he was first a serious contender in 2005, Nadal had arrived in New York either physically impaired or emotionally drained. In 2008, Nadal had been performing magnificently, capturing the French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic Games. But gone was most of his zest for the game by the time he got to the Open, and Andy Murray beat him in four sets. A year ago, he had missed Wimbledon with tendinitis in his knees and he had an ongoing abdominal problem. Nadal was obliterated 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 by the overpowering Juan Martin Del Potro. He was absolutely determined to make amends this time around, and he clearly did just that.

The 24-year-old had a terrific draw and he did not lose a set on his way to the final. There were two primary reasons why he was so impressive as he marched through round after round. Nadal’s hard court game was flourishing. He knew just when to go with the heavy topspin from the baseline and precisely when to flatten his shots out. His posture for the most part was more aggressive than ever before at the U.S. Open. But the biggest difference of all was the way he served. Nadal changed his grip slightly to give himself the option of more speed on his first serve, and the results of that alteration were profound. Only once was his fastest recorded serve not over 130 MPH in his seven contests, and even then he hit 129 MPH in his quarterfinal with Feliciano Lopez on an exceedingly windy night. Moreover, his average first serve speed ranged from a low of 116 MPH to a high of 122MPH. These numbers were considerably better than Nadal’s pace on serve in the past.

Remarkably, Nadal lost his serve only twice in six matches prior to the final, when Djokovic—one of the sport’s premier returners—broke him three times in the first two sets, but not once over the last two sets of a crackling four set final. Moreover, Nadal was earning so many free points with his bigger first serve that he did not face that many break points across the fortnight. Against Teymuraz Gabashvili in the first round, Nadal was down break point just once. Denis Istomin had seven break points over three sets. Gilles Simon got only one break point opportunity against the Spaniard, and then Feliciano Lopez made it to break point four times in his fourth round meeting with Nadal. Fernando Verdasco became the first player to break Nadal in the tournament at 1-1 in the opening set, but he never garnered another break point chance. Mikhail Youzhny earned only two break points in his straight set loss to Nadal in the semifinals, converting one. And even Djokovic had a mere four break points in the championship match, although he was opportunistic and converted three of them.

The striking evidence of Nadal’s more potent delivery is revealed by the number of unreturned serves from his opponent’s: 44% of Gabashvili’s returns did not come back into play against the Spaniard. Istomin was at 43%, Simon at 36%, Lopez 41%, Verdasco 32%, Youzhny 36% and Djokovic had the best numbers of anyone at 29%. Nadal was able to take control of his service games so much more easily than in times gone by, and could then start picking apart his adversaries with the consistency and accuracy of his own returns. To be sure, Nadal was fortunate that his opposition was not as formidable as he might have anticipated it would be. Had he taken on David Nalbandian in the quarterfinals, that could have been a rugged assignment, but Nalbandian was toppled by Verdasco in the third round. More importantly, a semifinal clash with Andy Murray would undoubtedly have been bruising, but Murray had yet another serious setback at a major, falling in the third round against Stanislas Wawrinka.

And yet, the way Nadal was playing the whole tournament, it is doubtful that anyone could have disrupted his rhythm. He had won his first French Open five years ago, his first Wimbledon in 2008, and then got on the board in Australia in 2009. This was the last piece in the Grand Slam career puzzle, and Nadal was single minded in pursuit of an elusive target. The only player who had a legitimate chance to topple the world No. 1 was the surging Djokovic, who was appearing in his first major final since capturing the Australian Open at the start of 2008. Djokovic—a U.S. Open finalist in 2007—had  recorded a stunning comeback triumph over Roger Federer in the semifinals, rescuing himself improbably from double match point down at 4-5 in the fifth set to capture three games in a row for a thrilling victory.

Had Djokovic played Nadal on Sunday following his three hour, 44 minute meeting with the five time champion Federer, he would have been hard pressed to make the final competitive for long. But when rain forced a third consecutive U.S. Open men’s final on Monday, Djokovic was the chief beneficiary. He seemed fresh and sharply focused on what he needed to do. Although Nadal grabbed a quick 2-0, 0-30 lead in the first set, Djokovic steadied himself at a moment of extreme urgency. Had Nadal gone up two breaks in that set, he might have taken utter control of the match. Djokovic managed to get back even at 2-2 before Nadal reasserted himself and took that set. After he broke the Serbian again for 3-2, Nadal conceded only two points in his last three service games to close out the set.

Nonetheless, Djokovic was unswerving. Firing away without apprehension and unleashing some spectacular forehand winners, he opened up a 4-1 second set lead. By the time Nadal served at 1-4, 0-15, he had lost no fewer than eleven points in a row, an unimaginable sequence for a man of his relentless consistency. But with typical gumption and perspicacity, Nadal reignited his game, winning three games in a row. The score was locked at 4-4, 30-30 when rain forced a one hour, 57 minute delay in the match.

That delay clearly helped Djokovic, who might well have been unable to halt the gathering momentum of Nadal. Djokovic played an inspired game to break Nadal when the Spaniard served at 5-6. On set point, he took a deep first serve down the T from Nadal and sent it back with astonishing depth down the middle of the court. Nadal was stymied, flicking a forehand into the net. It was one set all, and Djokovic was buoyant. He was now back in the match. Nadal was understandably dismayed by not achieving a two sets to love lead. The crowd was delighted by the heightened drama.

Nadal was now fueled by an apparent inner anger, and rather than feel sorry for himself he went right back to work. He knew that his chance to become the first man since Neale Fraser in 1960 to win the U.S. Championships without losing a set was gone. But he was now dwelling on that disappointment. He simply summoned a new level of intensity. He broke for 2-1 with some outrageously good counter-attacking. Serving with new balls, Nadal advanced to 3-1 with a love game. He pressed hard for another break but Djokovic fought off three break points in the fifth game, saving the first with a very unexpected serve-and-volley combination. Djokovic punched a well executed backhand first volley down the line and Nadal could not make an almost impossible backhand pass down the line.

 But Nadal was making a crafty adjustment on his serve. He realized that Djokovic was returning some of his bigger first serves better than anyone had the entire tournament. The Serbian’s capacity to read Nadal’s first serve direction was impressive. He had managed to break Nadal twice in the second set, which was no mean feat. But now the Spaniard started swinging his slice serve shorter and wider in the Ad court, and that tactic was sound. Djokovic was made to stretch far to his left for the two-handed backhand return and he was stifled time and again by that serve.

Nadal held at love again for 4-2 and had five break points for 5-2. Djokovic would not yield. He kept driving his outstanding inside-out forehand for either outright winners or to force errors. He closed the gap to 4-3. Both men held with ease to set up the moment that really mattered, with Nadal serving for the set at 5-4. He fell behind 15-30, and the tension throughout Arthur Ashe Stadium was just about palpable. And then the unflappable Spaniard responded with his usual grit. He used that brilliantly sliced serve wide in the Ad court for 30-30 as Djokovic had no play on the return. Then Nadal aced Djokovic out wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and it was 40-30. Finally, Nadal swung another acutely angled slice serve wide on set point, and once more Djokovic could not deal with it.

Nadal was ahead two sets to one, and was not about to look back. With Djokovic wilting but not totally fading, Nadal raced to 5-1, and then served out the match at 5-2. In three hours and 43 minutes, he had defeated a valiant Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, who took his defeat with grace and style. Nadal had done much more than win another tennis match or collect another title. He had become only the seventh man in tennis history—joining luminaries Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Federer—by winning all of the four majors in the course of his career. He had recorded the first ever three surface sweep of the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year, stepping up as the first man since Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in one year. He had become the first Spanish man to win the U.S. Open since Manolo Orantes triumphed on the clay at Forest Hills in 1975. He had established himself as the first left-hander to rule at the Open since John McEnroe in 1984. 

Nadal had raised his stock in history in one other way: this was his ninth major singles title. Nadal has now moved past Perry, Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Ken Rosewall on the all-time list of Grand Slam tournament singles victors. The only players who stand above him are Federer (16), Sampras (14), Emerson (12), Bjorn Borg and Laver (11), and Bill Tilden at 10. Nadal will almost inevitably pass Tilden, Borg, Laver and Emerson, and if he can keep his knees healthy he may well surpass Sampras and perhaps Federer. It is hard to imagine him not performing at the highest levels of the game for at least four more years. He has an awful lot of history yet to make.

As for Djokovic, he can be proud of his exploits at the Open. He could so easily have been eliminated in the opening round on a scorching day by countryman Viktor Troicki, who was striking the ball powerfully and cleanly and serving with great authority and conviction. Djokovic was plainly compromised by the heat and he fell behind two sets to one and 1-3 in the fourth set. He was down break point in that game but escaped and eventually prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3. That clutch win was crucial for Djokovic. He went all the way into his semifinal collision against Federer without losing another set, crushing Mardy Fish with an awesome display in the round of 16 and handling an immature and perplexing Gael Monfils in the quarters as the Frenchman seemed more interested in showboating and risky shot making than getting serious about winning.

In any event, Djokovic found himself facing Federer. He had lost 10 of their 15 career meetings, including three defeats in a row at the U.S. Open starting with the 2007 final. But Djokovic gave a remarkably good account of himself on this occasion. After leading 4-2 in the opening set, he dropped five of the next six games to lose the set, seemingly destroying his chances. But Federer wasted a 40-15 lead at 0-1 in the second set and never seemed to recover from that self inflicted would, while Djokovic found his range completely off the ground. The third set was well played on both sides of the net, but Djokovic tightened up considerably when he served at 5-6, losing that game at love with a degree of timidity.

On they went to the fourth set, and once more Federer lost his way. Djokovic broke him for 2-1 with a dazzling two-handed backhand pass crosscourt off a forehand down the line approach.  Mixing up his serve well, outplaying Federer from the baseline, playing intelligent tennis in every respect, Djokovic rolled through the fourth set, breaking Federer again in the fifth game. Both men rose honorably to the occasion in the fifth. It was the one time in the match that Federer and Djokovic were near the top of their games simultaneously, and a good match turned into a great one. At 3-3, Federer led 40-0 but that game went to deuce four times and the Swiss needed seven game points before he could hold. They remained on serve. But Djokovic was in a precarious corner at 4-5.

Serving to stay in the contest, he trailed 15-40, double match point after bungling a routine overhead and making two backhand unforced errors. Djokovic appeared to be unraveling and it seemed certain that Federer and Nadal would become the first rivals in history to meet in all four Grand Slam finals at least once. Djokovic, however, had other notions. On the first match point, he missed his first serve, got good depth on the second delivery into Federer’s body on the forehand side, and dictated the point entirely. Federer scraped back a sliced backhand from well behind the baseline, but Djokovic moved in confidently for an inside out forehand swing volley winner on the eleventh stroke of the rally. At 30-40, on the second match point, he missed the first serve again, produced an excellent second serve to the backhand, and then on the fourth stroke of the rally Federer rolled what looked like a safe backhand down the middle. Djokovic went for broke and made an astonishing forehand winner. Djokovic twice advanced to game point but Federer boldly won those points. Djokovic made it to game point a third time and held on.

With Federer serving at 5-5, 30-30, Djokovic’s deep return coaxed the Swiss into a forehand wide, and then Federer pressed at break point down, pulling another forehand wide. Djokovic had come from double match point down and was serving for the match, but he was down 0-30. He got back to 30-30 but fell behind break point. Federer was one point away from a fifth set tie-break, but he never got there. Djokovic forced him into a running forehand crosscourt long and then a perhaps dejected Federer drove a forehand into the bottom of the net. Djokovic played a sensible rally on match point, and Federer’s forehand inside-out drifted wide. Djokovic had ousted his great rival 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. He had come from the brink of defeat to register the victory, and yet Djokovic broke Federer six times while losing his own serve only three times. He had made 38 unforced errors while Federer committed 66. He had connected with 66% of his first serves while Federer made good on only 53%.

The bottom line is that Federer had failed to reach a Grand Slam final for the third successive time, while Djokovic had taken a big step forward to be in another major final. Djokovic seems at last to have sorted out some of his serving difficulties. His motion looks more natural again and he is gradually getting more velocity on his first serve. His second serve was a big reason why he beat Federer. Djokovic has set the stage for a productive and uplifting 2011 campaign.

Unmistakably, the play of 18-year-old American qualifier Ryan Harrison was uplifting. He upended No. 15 seed Ivan Ljubicic in a four set, opening round match. He should have beaten world No. 36 Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round. Harrison was ahead 6-3 in the fifth set tie-break but squandered three match points in a row. Then he double faulted at 6-6 and went on to lose the match 6-3, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (6). But this kid has immense potential. He has so much versatility in his game, he can mix it up well from the baseline, and he can serve-and-volley skillfully. He has a tendency to throw his racket on the court in frustration and can get down on himself easily, but he knows how to fight and loves the sport. Two years from now, I expect to see him among the top 30 in the world.

Meanwhile, aside from the Federer-Djokovic duel, the best match of the tournament was a fourth round appointment between the Spaniards David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco. They played on Louis Armstrong Stadium and their five set skirmish carried on deep into the evening. The crowd gave them both effusive support, and the atmosphere for that match was astounding. In the fifth set, Verdasco was down a break but battled back to force a tie-break. Ferrer was serving at 4-1 up in the tie-break but Verdasco swept six points in a row to win the match 5-7, 6-7 (8), 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4), taking the match by whipping a forehand pass from short range around the net post for a winner. I watched the entire fifth set and loved every minute of it. Two Spaniards were treated like New Yorkers that evening, and it was a joy to be there.

As for Clijsters, she had a terrific Open. Only Sam Stosur and Venus Williams took sets off Clijsters. The Clijsters-Williams semifinal was the women’s match of the tournament. Williams served tremendously in the opening set, taking 81% of her first serve points and 78% of her second serve points. She also made only five unforced errors in that set. Clijsters led 5-2 in the second set but was pulled into a critical tie-break. Serving at 0-1 in that sequence, Venus double faulted two times in a row and never really recovered. At 4-4 in the third, having just broken back, Williams stood at 30-30. She double faulted to trail break point, and then Clijsters rolled an exquisite backhand topspin lob over the American for an outright winner. She promptly served out the match to win 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.

Clijsters proceeded to destroy Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 6-1 in a disappointing final. It was the 15th final in a row at Flushing Meadows for the women that has been settled in straight sets. It was desultory stuff from Zvonareva, who was as nervous as she had been in facing Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final. Clijsters was first rate but was never tested as much as she should have been. Still, the feeling grows that Clijsters will win one of the other majors sometime over the next couple of years. Since becoming a mother, she has been playing some of the best tennis of her life and she is both relaxed and intense at the same time. That is a remarkable combination.

So there you have it. This was Rafael Nadal’s U.S. Open, and he made it an occasion that will be cherished forever by his many admirers. Others made major contributions, but Nadal took over this tournament as he does so many others, and he stands in a class by himself at the moment as the greatest player in the world of tennis.

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