Nadal overpowers Djokovic to take his second US Open title
As Rafael Nadal moved to within four majors of the absent Roger Federer and seven ahead of the not-always-present , there could be no denying that the recrowned king of New York was the best player in the world on Monday, and maybe for a little while to come.
He , to win his second US Open and 13th career slam in his third joust with Djokovic in four years. It is a trilogy to further cement one of the enduring rivalries in sport. Again, until the fourth set, they hit heights of excellence to take the breath away in their 37th encounter – more than anyone in the history of the game - reaching back to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros in 2006.
What a year the Spaniard has had: coming back to the game after seven months out to rest knees that would not have been out of place on a marionette, going on to win 60 of 64 matches, 22 of them on hard courts, lift 10 titles, two of them majors – and he is still No 2 in the world. He could rectify that in the two months remaining, but that was not a priority at Flushing Meadows. This was his sixth win over Djokovic in their last seven matches. That's a statement.
Djokovic, managed a smile but not many platitudes in the immediate aftermath. "He definitely deserved to win this match," he said. "It was a huge privilege to be fighting for this trophy."
Nadal, was brief and to the point as well, "Very, very emotional. All my team knows how much this means to me. Probably nobody brings my game to its limits like Novak Djokovic."
Rod Laver, 75 now and living in California for many years, flipped the coin a little after 5pm local time and it would have been no surprise had it floated away in the prevailing gusts.
Nadal was in grey, but hardly dull, and Djokovic wore red and black, a menacing sight. His crimson jacket fluttered like a matador's cape in the light breeze, which was steady but not as strong as the night before during the women's final. It was hard to pick the crowd; they were with the Spanish bull at the start, switching to the Serb when he came to life in the second, back behind the new champion at the end.
The suspicion is the masochism needed to survive in the modern game probably sustains the electricity that exists between these fine champions, and they rather enjoy the public trials of a private feud. If they are sick of the sight of each other, they don't show it.
Nadal and Djokovic also brought more combined treasure to the showdown, 18 slams, than anyone since Pete Sampras (13) and Andre Agassi (7) when they contested the 2002 final.
Hidden under the weight of stats lurk other truths: Nadal did not start well at Roland Garros this year, going two sets down against Daniel Brands at the beginning, then accounted for a sub-par Djokovic in the semi-final before winning the title; in this tournament, the Spaniard has consistently played near his maximum, broken only once, while Djokovic has had the occasional struggle, notably .
Nadal was the first to prise open the door in the third game, pinning Djokovic deep with massive top-spin for a break point, which he converted with a wicked inside-out forehand struck with venom from mid-court.
In Montreal a month ago he tormented Djokovic with the weight of his ground strokes; here he did so selectively, content to grind through the rallies until the appropriate moment arrived, then pull the trigger. At times it was as if there were two Nadals out there: a punchbag and an executioner.
As Laver told the Wall Street Journal during the week: "He just seems to set the point up, plays it and plays it until he can run around that backhand, and hit that forehand away."
Djokovic, meanwhile, laboured at the start. He looked drawn when he pushed another forehand long to go 2-5 down, the victim of that drip-drip-bang Nadal tennis. The crowd loved it, but they wanted a contest for their bucks, and they were not getting the one they had anticipated. Nadal served out the set untroubled, with just four unforced errors to his opponent's 14.
Juan Martin del Potro is the only player in the past 20 years to win this title after going a set down, but Djokovic has spent most of his life defying convention. Could he find something special, perhaps a memory from the countless hours they had shared on court, to lift him?
He wasted his first look in the second game of the second set, betrayed by his unreliable backhand – but not the next opportunity in the sixth game, ending the best and longest rally of the tournament, built of 54 shots, with a forehand drilled at his opponent's ankles. There can't have been many among the crowd of 22,000-plus who did not stand to applaud.
Now they had the final they had paid for. Although Nadal broke back immediately - as if the exertion of the previous game had momentarily drained Djokovic – the world No 1 was starting to boss a lot of the exchanges, even against the serve, and he broke again then served out to level at a set apiece after an hour and 41 minutes.
Nadal, having served flawlessly for a fortnight, dropped his third service game in a row at the start of the third, to love, and Djokovic sensed vulnerability. After taking eight points in a row, he was more in command of Nadal than Nadal had been of him in the first set, but was dragged back to deuce and needed an ace to hold.
After two hours, the rallies remained long, the quality of defence and counter-attack astonishingly high and it was as if they were merely warming up for a protracted slugging match to rival the conclusion to their near-six-hour final in Melbourne. In that final, the tennis in the fourth and fifth sets was even better than all that had gone before.
Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, told a Spanish radio station before this match, "He will always play in pain, but he can handle it." Still, he had not been in a contest like that one since (or before, for that matter); this match, too, was now on another level, and, when he broke back in the sixth game, Nadal knew there was plenty of sweat to come.
Was it his knees, though, that gave up on him for 0-30 in the ninth game, as he stumbled going backwards under the pressure of Djokovic's deep drive? Certainly it looked that way. He needed an ace to save a third break point, and it was looseness in the shot from Djokovic that let Nadal off for a shaky hold and overall parity after two-and-a-half hours.
When Djokovic belted the tape, handing Nadal set point, the crowd, already demented, went crazy – and crazier when the final shot from the Serb went long.
The breaks arrived with painful regularity in the fourth set, as what had been an absorbing contest turned into a beating. A lame Djokovic forehand into the net ended it, then they embraced at the net, the tears all belonging to the winner, as he fell and rolled on the court in what has become a ritual celebration.
A year ago, Nadal wasn't here, and even pondered quitting tennis. He could not have announced his return more emphatically. And, as for that Federer record: if he can stay upright, it's surely his.