Rain halts Nadal bid to join elite ranks of Grand Slam masters
There are times when it seems that nothing can stop Rafael Nadal's assault on history, but the 24-year-old Spaniard was halted in his tracks for the second day in succession in New York last night.
The rain which had forced the postponement of his US Open final against Novak Djokovic the previous day returned midway through the second set, forcing the players off court. Nadal was leading 6-4, 4-4, with Djokovic serving at 30-30, when the skies above Flushing Meadows opened again, though the weather forecast suggested there would be no problem finishing the match later in the day.
If the break threatened to take the momentum away from Nadal, who had just won three games in succession, it also came shortly after Djokovic's best spell in the match. Having dominated the first set, Nadal had appeared to be coasting towards his goal of becoming only the seventh man to win all four Grand Slam titles, but Djokovic, playing in his second US Open final and his first at a Grand Slam tournament since his victory in Australia two years ago, fought back with admirable spirit.
Nadal was aiming for the ninth Grand Slam title of his career to complete an extraordinary turnaround in his year. Only five months ago the Spaniard 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 the French Open and Wimbledon and become both the first man to win a clean sweep of the four biggest honours in the clay-court season and the most successful player in Masters Series history, with 18 tournament victories.
Now history was beckoning as the Spaniard attempted to join Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Federer as the only men to win all four Grand Slam titles. At 24 years and 101 days he was also aiming to become the youngest man in the Open era to have done so and the third youngest ever, behind Budge and Laver.
Nadal had won 14 of his previous 21 matches against Djokovic, including all four at Grand Slam level, but 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 the Serb has enjoyed the most success and Nadal the least, though you would hardly have guessed that from the opening game.
Djokovic, who will take over Federer's world No 2 ranking today, won a superb first point, hitting a backhand winner after a lengthy baseline 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 the Serb recovered to open his account.
If Djokovic looked lethargic, that was perhaps no surprise given their semi-finals on Saturday. While Nadal had enjoyed a comfortable straight sets-win over Mikhail Youzhny, Djokovic, playing in the later match, had been on court for nearly four hours before beating Federer in five sets.
The fact that Djokovic was not hitting the ball with quite the same force as he had against Federer was also down to the quality of his opponent's play. Nadal struck the ball beautifully, hitting it with such consistent power that Djokovic was constantly pushed on to the back foot. No player in the modern game is as adept at turning defence into attack and when the world No 1 was on the retreat he was still liable to hit astonishing winners from almost any area of the court.
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 the 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 big forehand winners to take a 4-1 lead.
The change of momentum did not last long. Nadal broke in what seemed likely to be a pivotal seventh game with a huge backhand winner down the line and was threatening the Djokovic serve again at 4-4 when the weather intervened. The final had begun in bright sunshine in mid-afternoon, but by the second set the floodlights were burning brightly out of a leaden sky.
Remarkably, this is the third year in succession when 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. There have been renewed calls to put a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, but given the size of the arena that is about as unlikely as Nadal giving up tennis for tiddlywinks.
"It's technically complex and financially challenging," a USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said. "At a cost of more than $150 million [£97.3m], do you spend that on a roof or continue to fund grassroots tennis programs in this country?"
*Elena Baltacha is expected to be ranked inside the world's top 50 for the first time in her career by climbing to No 49 in today's updated list. She is only the second British woman to break the top 50 in the last 16 years after Anne Keothavong, who reached a career high of No 48 last year.
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