Novak Djokovic's astonishing season goes on. The 24-year-old Serb won his third Grand Slam tournament of the year, his 10th title and his 64th match out of 66 to claim the US Open for the first time here last night. Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 to record his sixth successive victory over the Spaniard in finals this year and earn revenge for his defeat to the same opponent in the final 12 months ago.
The world's two best players provided a fitting finale to the Grand Slam season in the tournament's fourth successive Monday final. Much of the tennis was sensational, with both men pushing each other to the limit with the relentless accuracy and weight of their ground strokes and their stunning speed around the court. There were moments of exquisite skill, too, with Djokovic in particular playing some delightful drop-shot winners.
At times the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium gasped in disbelief at the athleticism of the two men as they retrieved balls from seemingly impossible positions. The length of the rallies was more befitting of a clay-court match than one played on the quickest surface on the Grand Slam circuit. Both men were broken on a regular basis, but Djokovic in particular seemed to read Nadal's serve with ease, repeatedly driving his returns to within inches of the Spaniard's baseline.
Djokovic is the sixth man in the Open era to win three Grand Slam titles in the same season. Although Don Budge (in 1938) and Rod Laver (in 1962 and 1969) both went one better, his year is stacking up well with the best in history given that he is competing in an era which until now had been dominated by two of the greatest players of all time in Nadal and Roger Federer. His only defeats since November have been against Federer in the semi-finals of the French Open – which was won by Nadal – and against Andy Murray in the Cincinnati Masters final, when he retired hurt.
On a warm afternoon with a variable breeze, the atmosphere inside the cavernous main show court was intense from the start. The only regret was that there were several occasions when the players were distracted by shouting from spectators in the middle of points.
Nadal is a crowd favourite wherever he plays, but Djokovic is also hugely popular here. He further endeared himself by entering the court wearing a New York fireman's cap in recognition of the tenth anniversary on Sunday of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the city.
Given the intensity of the match, it was perhaps no surprise that both men were given code violations for taking too long between points. Both like to compose themselves before serving, Djokovic with his dogged ball-bouncing and Nadal with his ritual-like preparations.
There were some extremely long games, but that was almost entirely down to the ability of the two men to keep forcing their opponent to hit the extra ball. After 29 minutes the score stood at just 2-2, Djokovic having dropped serve in the second game only to break back immediately.
The next four games, however, took just 14 minutes as Djokovic quickly took control. With Nadal regularly hitting the ball short, Djokovic was able to step inside the court and keep the Spaniard behind the baseline with his hammer-blow ground strokes. Treating Nadal's serve with contempt, Djokovic broke three times in a row and won six games in succession to take the first set.
Nadal responded well, breaking serve to go 2-0 up in the second set, only for Djokovic to snatch back the initiative again. A wonderful third game, featuring a series of breath-taking rallies, ended after more than 17 minutes with Djokovic converting his sixth break point when Nadal netted a smash.
Two games later Djokovic broke again, Nadal double-faulting on break point. Although the Spaniard responded in kind to level at 4-4, he immediately dropped serve for the sixth time, enabling Djokovic to serve out for a two-sets lead. The final point summed up his apparent invincibility, the Serb winning it with a colossal forehand from out wide after Nadal had apparently taken command with his own huge return of serve.
From 1-1 in the third set there were four successive breaks of serve. Djokovic clung on when trailing 3-4 after a rally that summed up the match. Thirty-one shots were exchanged, with Nadal staying in contention thanks only to some spell-binding defence, before Djokovic cracked a backhand winner down the line. At 5-5 Djokovic broke again but, incredibly, Nadal broke back when the Serb attempted to serve out for the title. The set went to a tie-break, which Nadal won 7-3 after Djokovic netted a forehand.
When Djokovic had treatment for a sore back at the start of the fourth set and took a medical time-out after the first game it seemed that the momentum might have swung decisively against him, but the world No 1 showed the resilience of a true champion to break for a 10th and 11th time and complete an extraordinary victory after more than four hours.