Many tennis aficionados thought they would never witness such a sight. It was not so much Rafael Nadal lying on his back in celebration - we had grown accustomed to that scene in Paris, had seen it twice at Wimbledon and even watched it in Melbourne - as the stage on which it was happening.
The conditions in New York, so the experts had said, would always count against the 24-year-old Spaniard and would thwart his dream of becoming only the seventh man in history to win all four Grand Slam titles. Here, however, as Novak Djokovic hit a forehand wide on Nadal's first match point, the world No 1 was left to celebrate arguably the greatest triumph of his career by winning the US Open, in which he had never previously gone beyond the semi-finals.
It was not so long ago that Nadal was almost routinely referred to as "the king of clay". In the three months through to the final of the French Open that was always a reflection of his domination on Europe's clay courts, but for the rest of the year the description carried the implication that he was a one-dimensional player, uneasy on any surface other than his beloved terre battue.
Nadal's first four Grand Slam titles were all won at Roland Garros and even though he had reached two Wimbledon finals it was not until his extraordinary triumph on the All England Club grass two years ago that the wider world began to appreciate that the Majorcan was no one-trick pony. Seven months later he won a Grand Slam title on a third surface, the hard courts of the Australian Open.
Nevertheless, for some critics the failure to win the US Open still separated Nadal from the all-time greats. He had usually paid a price at Flushing Meadows for his efforts in his clay and grass-court campaigns, while the hard courts of the north American circuit traditionally took their toll on his troublesome knees.
The combination of a quick playing surface, the late-summer New York heat and fast-flying Wilson balls also seemed to count against Nadal, who did not have the serve or ground strokes to take advantage. His forehand in particular, struck with heavy top spin, was a huge weapon on clay and grass, where he had more time to take a big backswing, but the conditions at Flushing Meadows always suited players with flatter ground strokes.
When Nadal arrived at this year's US Open it seemed that the pattern of previous seasons would be repeated. Following his remarkable clay-court run, when he became the first man ever to win the French Open and all three Masters Series tournaments, and his second victory at Wimbledon, Nadal had lost in the semi-finals and quarter-finals respectively of two hard-court events in the build-up to New York. He thought his backhand had been "terrible", he had been making too many unforced errors on his forehand and his serve had been ineffective.
Nevertheless, after a laboured three-hour victory over Teymuraz Gabashvili in his opening match, Nadal showed his determination to defy the odds. "The ball is the most difficult thing for me," he explained. "I think it's easier for players who hit the ball flat rather than those who hit it with top-spin. But I won the Olympics playing with this ball. I won in Beijing in 2005 with this ball. I can do it."
Nadal felt the key was not to adapt his ground strokes but to change his tactics. "The thing is to play with top spin, but to play very aggressively all the time, to play at a very high rhythm," he said.
The one stroke Nadal did change was his serve. Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, suggested a change of grip, enabling the world No 1 to hit the ball as he had at Wimbledon, faster and flatter. The result, for a player whose serve had been considered one of the weakest parts of his game, was extraordinary. In seven matches Nadal dropped serve only five times, a performance that only Andy Roddick had matched since such statistics were first compiled in 1991. The confidence it gave Nadal was evident in all areas of his game.
Gabashvili, Denis Istomin, Gilles Simon, Feliciano Lopez, Fernando Verdasco and Mikhail Youzhny were all beaten in straight sets as Nadal eased into a final against Djokovic, who had ended Roger Federer's run of six successive appearances in the final. Nadal had won 14 of his previous 21 matches against Djokovic, but had lost their three most recent meetings and seven of their 10 contests on hard courts.
The final - played on a Monday because of bad weather for the third year in succession - was a match of the highest quality. Djokovic defended heroically, saving 20 out of 26 break points, but Nadal struck the ball beautifully, hitting it with awesome power and attacking even when stretched to the limit.
Breaking serve twice in the first five games, Nadal took the opening set in 50 minutes before Djokovic became the only player to break the Spaniard's serve twice in the tournament to take control of the second. After a two-hour rain break, when Djokovic was leading 4-1, Nadal dropped his only set of the tournament.
The third set featured some wonderful play as both men hit the ball with enormous power. Nadal held his serve with relative ease, while Djokovic was put under relentless pressure. The Spaniard converted only one of his 11 break points in the set, but it was enough to make the crucial breakthrough, after which he won the fourth set with something to spare to complete a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
In winning, Nadal joined Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Federer as the only men to have won all of the sport's greatest prizes. With nine Grand Slam titles to his name, the 24-year-old is on course to overtake Federer's record of 16 major crowns. His early successes on clay owed much to his ability as a counter-puncher, but on other surfaces he has learned to attack more. Four of his last five Grand Slam titles have been won on grass or hard courts.
As a new season approaches, we should not be surprised if the Spaniard emerges an even better player in 2011. One comment he made in the wake of his New York triumph was an ominous warning to his rivals: "My goal all my life has been the same: to keep improving and make myself feel a better player next year."Reuse content