Rafael Nadal wins US Open after beating Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal won a colossal contest of wills last night against a man who could barely have been hitting the ball any better.
Over 3hrs 21min, Nadal withstood game after game of brilliance from an inspired Novak Djokovic, like a lighthouse holding firm against a roiling sea.
Tennis wise, Djokovic was doing everything right: occupying the centre of the court, forcing Nadal back with the power of his hitting, and returning every serve into the corners.
Yet there is one part of Nadal’s game that never wavers: his mental resilience. You can pummel him with 90 minutes of sustained brilliance, as Djokovic did from the end of the first set until the middle of the third, until the crowd are almost feeling sorry for the man. And yet he just hangs in there. As soon as you waver for a second, as soon as you play a couple of bad points, he steals the initiative back.
Looking at the scoreline from this match — a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win for Nadal — you might think that it had been too one-sided to be counted among their most classic encounters.
Yet for sustained quality and ambition, for the sheer purity of the ball-striking, it could be counted among their best. And also among the best grand slam finals ever played. Duration-wise, it may not even have approached their 5hrs 53min final in Australia. But there was more magic packed into those four sets than you will find in many entire tournaments.
At the top of the list of wonders was the 54-shot rally played on break point at 3-2 in the second set. This was easily the highest number of the tournament, more than 20 shots ahead of the next longest point.
It drew an instant standing ovation from the crowd, whose roars threatened to undermine the structural integrity of the Arthur Ashe Stadium, and save the US Tennis Association from having to bulldoze the arena as planned.
As a rule of thumb, the longer a point, the more influence it has on the psychological balance of power. Yet a measure of Nadal’s indestructibility was his response to losing this rally, and with it his serve. His intensity never dropped for a second, and indeed it was a puffed Djokovic who committed a couple of cheap errors at the start of the next game to put his own serve under pressure. Moments later, Nadal had broken back to level the set.
The excitement generated by so many long rallies left the crowd breathless and also unruly. So many attention-seeking fans could be heard shouting out in the middle of rallies that at one point Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, climbed out of his seat and started remonstrating with a couple of hooligans in person.
Nadal himself seemed unbothered by the commotion, so complete was his focus. At 4-4 in the third set, he actually fell on his back while performing his signature manoeuvre — the back-pedalling sprint to get around his backhand and hit one of his favoured forehands instead.
Yet rather than allowing the incident to distract or embarrass him, he hit straight back and broke Djokovic’s serve for the critical 2-1 lead in sets. From that moment, his aggression resurfaced and he roared straight ahead towards his 13th grand slam title. Great players have a knack for sprinting across the finish line.
Nadal fell on his back and wept when Djokovic missed the final shot, a forehand into the net. He has never been as emotional at the end of a grand slam. But then he has never come back from a career-threatening injury to dominate a season in the way that he has this year.
His second slam of 2013 confirmed that he will soon steal the No 1 ranking back from Djokovic and reclaim his position as the leading player in the world. It also reopens the debate about whether he can justly be considered the greatest of all time, an honour that many thought he had conceded to Roger Federer when he left the tour for seven months at the end of last year.
Djokovic looked stunned. It is hard to believe than anyone has ever played so well and lost.