Novak Djokovic did his best to hold him off and even the rain kept him at bay for a while, but in the end there was no stopping Rafael Nadal’s assault on history. The 24-year-old Spaniard won the US Open for the first time in New York last night to become only the seventh player to win all four Grand Slam titles.
Nadal won a final of the highest quality 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 after three hours and 43 minutes and joins Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer as the only men ever to have won all of the sport’s greatest prizes. At 24 years and 101 days he is the youngest man in the Open era to have done so and the third youngest ever, behind Budge and Laver. With nine Grand Slam titles under his belt already, he is well placed eventually to overtake Federer’s record of 16 Grand Slam crowns.
Having also won the French Open and Wimbledon earlier this summer, Nadal is the fourth man, after Laver, Sampras and Federer, to win three consecutive Grand Slam titles in the Open era. If he wins the Australian Open at the start of next year he will join an even more select group of players to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. The only player to have beaten him in a major tournament this year is Andy Murray, the Spaniard having retired with an injury when trailing by two sets and 3-0 in the quarter-finals in Melbourne.
Victory completed an extraordinary turnaround for Nadal. Only five months ago he was on an 11-month run without a title, with speculation mounting as to whether his suspect knees would prevent him ever recapturing his best form. Since then he has won three Grand Slam titles in succession and become both the first man ever to win a clean sweep of all the significant honours in the clay-court season and the most successful player in Masters Series history.
Given the widespread view that the quick conditions at Flushing Meadows make the US Open the most difficult of Grand Slam tournaments for him, the manner of Nadal’s triumph, in one of the most competitive eras in tennis history, was remarkable.
Had he not lost the second set last night Nadal would have been the first man in the Open era to win the tournament without dropping a set. He also won the title having dropped his serve only five times over the fortnight, equalling Andy Roddick’s 2003 performance, which was the best since such statistics were first recorded 19 years ago. And to think Nadal’s serve was regarded not so long ago as his biggest weakness.
If there was disappointment for Djokovic in losing the second US Open final of his career following his defeat to Federer three years ago, there were other consolations. The Serb has regained the world No 2 position from Federer and, more importantly, proved that he can still be a contender for the biggest prizes. The last fortnight has seen Djokovic find his best Grand Slam form since he won his first major title at the Australian Open two and a half years ago. Indeed, this was his first final anywhere for more than six months.
Bizarrely, this was the third year in succession that the men’s final has had to be played on a Monday: until 2008, the tournament had not been forced to go into an extra day because of bad weather for 21 years. Predictably, there have been renewed calls to put a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, though given the size of the arena that is about as likely as Nadal giving up tennis for tiddlywinks.
The rain that delayed the final by a day could only have been to Djokovic’s advantage. While Nadal had enjoyed a reasonably comfortable straight sets win in Saturday’s semi-finals, Djokovic, playing in the later match, was on court for nearly four hours in beating Federer in five sets and had been facing the prospect of having to recover in less than a day.
Although Nadal had won 14 of his previous 21 matches against Djokovic, including all four at Grand Slam level, the Serb had come out on top in their last three meetings and had won seven of their 10 contests on hard courts. This is the surface on which Djokovic has enjoyed the most success and Nadal the least.
Nadal, however, struck the ball beautifully throughout, hitting it with such consistent power that Djokovic could never relax. No player in the modern game is as adept at turning defence into attack: when the world No 1 was on the retreat he was still liable to hit astonishing winners from almost any area of the court.
Djokovic, nevertheless, played superbly in patches, his forehand in particular proving a potent weapon whenever he was given the chance to attack. He defended heroically, saving 20 out of 26 break points, and made the best of his own opportunities, converting three of his four chances to break Nadal’s serve.
The opening point set the tone for the whole contest, Djokovic hitting a backhand winner after a thrilling exchange, but Nadal quickly took command. The Spaniard won the next four points in succession to break serve, held to go 2-0 up and was 0-30 up on the Djokovic serve before his opponent recovered to open his account.
When Djokovic levelled at 2-2, the early crisis seemed to have been averted, but Nadal struck back immediately. Djokovic saved three break points from 0-40 down, but Nadal eventually completed his second break with a huge forehand winner, after which the Serb smashed his racket in frustration.
Nadal served out to take the first set in 50 minutes, at which point Djokovic might have called to mind a chilling statistic. In his previous 108 Grand Slam matches Nadal had lost only once after winning the first set, when David Ferrer beat him in New York three years ago.
Djokovic, nevertheless, became the only player to break Nadal’s serve twice in this tournament when he drew first blood in the second set. Suddenly striking the ball with more freedom, the Serb hit a succession of massive forehand winners to take a 4-1 lead.
Nadal broke back and levelled the set at 4-4 when the weather intervened. The match had begun in bright sunshine in mid-afternoon, but by the second set the floodlights were burning brightly out of a leaden sky and soon the rain was pouring down.
When they resumed nearly two hours later both players immediately found their touch, but it was Djokovic who made the break to level the match when Nadal served at 5-6.
By this stage both players were hitting the ball with enormous power. There were some sensational points as both men went for broke, but while Nadal was holding his serve with relative ease Djokovic was put under relentless pressure. Nadal forced 11 break points in the third set, but such was Djokovic’s tenacity that the Spaniard took only one of them, though that was all he needed.
In comparison the final set was a canter as Nadal broke serve in the third and fifth games before serving out for victory. Djokovic hit a forehand wide on the first match point, upon which Nadal fell on to his back in celebration.
Djokovic was the most gracious of losers, embracing his conqueror warmly. “Right now he is the best player in the world and he absolutely deserves this title,” the Serb said at the presentation ceremony.
Nadal, having thanked Djokovic for his sportsmanship, said that winning the US Open was “more than I could ever have dreamed of”. He is some champion.