Like him or not, you absolutely have to respect tip your cap and salute Rafael Nadal. At the age of just 24, this evening Nadal become just the seventh man in tennis history to collect the career Grand Slam.
Nadal added to his only missing Major trophy by out-slugging a worthy and well prepared Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in a rain-interrupted US Open championship match.
The victory gives Nadal nine total Slams including the last three, all on different surfaces
“First thing, congratulations, Nole and his team, for a great tournament,” Nadal said after the 3-hours, 43-minute win. “You are a great player, and you will win this trophy soon, I am sure of it. It is more than I ever dreamed (to win the US Open). It is amazing to be here in this final for me. Just to get to the final was amazing, and now to have the trophy, it is unbelievable.”
But credit to Djokovic, who looked fresh and in form following an unscheduled day off Sunday, for pushing Nadal as hard as he could. He served well, ripped his groundstrokes and went after Nadal. The guy played like a champ.
Djokovic, however, appeared in immediate physical distress with a lower leg ailment after the very first point. Minutes later into his third career Slam title match he was already down break.
Novak rallied to break back to level things and the journey began. And it was a good one.
Much like we’ve come know in this rivalry, the sets were long, the games were long and often the points were long. But the quality of tennis during the first three sets was top notch, crowd-pleasing stuff as both guys lasered groundstrokes using every inch of court geometry and firepower.
Nadal just did everything better.
“He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever,” said Djokovic who was appearing in his second US Open final after losing to Federer in 2007. “I think he’s playing the best tennis that I ever seen him play on hardcourts. He has improved his serve drastically. The speed, the accuracy, and of course his baseline is as good as ever.
“I was feeling good on the court tonight from a physical perspective, and just running all over the court and getting a lot of balls back,” Novak added. “It was just a pleasure performing in front of the people who enjoy tennis so much and support the players.”
The title bout was a fitting end to an unusual, weather-dominated US Open which Mother Nature forced into a Monday final for a third straight year.
The players fought through extreme heat the first week, then the wind. This weekend it was the cooler temperatures before the customary US Open rains finally came.
The Sunday washout likely aided Novak who would have had to face Nadal less than 24 hours after the Serb saved two matchpoints in a physically and mentally draining 5-set thriller over Roger Federer on Saturday.
Then today, with Djokovic down a set and teetering at 4-4, 30-30, the match was halted for nearly two hours after another cloudburst. A replenished Djokovic returned to hold serve and two games later he handed Nadal his only set loss of the tournament.
But in the end Nadal was just too darn good and too darn strong. In terms of head-shakin’, how-did-he-do-that type of shots, the Spaniard’s right up there with Federer and McEnroe when they were at their bests.
“For me, in order to win against tonight, I had to be on the top of my game,” Djokovic said. “I was playing really well for most of the match, but then there were some moments in, let’s say, third and fourth set where I dropped my focus a little bit. I dropped my level of game and just a little bit on service games. It went for me. He took it away, and he never gave me a chance to go back.”
Even though he was sub-standard on break points tonight (6 of 26), he still competes so well and with his new, powered-up serve – really his only prior weakness – he’s starting to look unbeatable.
And in Slams this year he has been unbeatable. The win was his 21st straight in Grand Slam play. In fact, during this calendar Grand Slam season Nadal never lost a match point – recall he had to retire in Australia to Andy Murray. Nadal’s also the first lefty to win the Open since McEnroe did it in 1984, and he the first Spaniard since Manuel Orantes in 1975.
Nadal’s also the youngest to complete the career Slam, joining Rod Laver, Don Budge, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Federer in that historic group.
So now the GOAT debate really heats up. At 24 Nadal already has everything there is to win in tennis – the four Majors, the Davis Cup and even an Olympic gold medal. What else is there? Seven more Slams to catch up to Federer’s 16?
If Nadal can stay healthy and keep improving, at his age we could be watching another GOAT. How lucky we are. Vamos…
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