POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Sep 14, 2010
NEW YORK » The list was long. Everyone, even Rafael Nadal himself, tried to explain why he kept leaving the U.S. Open without a trophy, why it was the only Grand Slam tournament he hadn't conquered.
His grinding style exhausts him. The wind plays havoc with his spin-lathered strokes. The courts are too hard and too fast. The balls are too soft. And so on.
Two marvelous, nearly perfect weeks -- and one victory in a thrilling final -- make that all sound rather silly.
Nadal won his first U.S. Open title to complete a career Grand Slam, beating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 yesterday in a match filled with fantastic shotmaking by both men and interrupted by a thunderstorm a day after it was postponed by rain.
It's Nadal's third consecutive major championship and ninth overall. He is the seventh man in tennis history with at least one title from each Grand Slam tournament.
"I think for the first time in my career I played a very, very good match in this tournament," Nadal said. "That's my feeling. I played my best match in the U.S. Open out there at the most important moment."
Rain pushed the men's final from Sunday to Monday for the third consecutive year, and play was interrupted for nearly 2 hours during the second set. When they resumed, Djokovic took that set, the only one Nadal lost in the tournament. But the No. 1-ranked Spaniard quickly went ahead in the third set and, really, that was that.
"He took it away," Djokovic said, "and he never gave me a chance to go back."
Once seen as Roger Federer's nemesis, the 24-year-old Nadal now has made his own greatness quite clear.
"He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever," Djokovic said. "I think he's playing the best tennis that I've ever seen him play on hard courts. He has improved his serve drastically -- the speed, the accuracy. And, of course, his baseline (game) is as good as ever."
Nadal stretched his Grand Slam winning streak to 21 matches by adding the U.S. Open to his titles at the French Open in June, then Wimbledon in July. No man had won those three tournaments in the same year since Rod Laver won a true Grand Slam in 1969. Now Nadal heads to the Australian Open in January with a chance to claim a Rafa Slam of four consecutive major championships -- something that also hasn't been done since Laver.
No. 3 Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion and 2007 U.S. Open runner-up, made Nadal earn it. The Serb played superbly for long stretches, showing off the terrific returning and retrieving and big forehand he used to knock off 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer in Saturday's semifinals.
Coming out of the rain delay with Djokovic serving at 4-all, 30-all in the second set, both players clearly benefited from a bit of rest. Fresh of body and clear of mind, and with conditions perfect for tennis -- calm and cool, the temperature in the 70s -- they were superb, engaging in 10-, 15-, 20-stroke points that drew standing ovations and camera flashes from the stands, no matter who hit the winner.
And there were winners aplenty at both ends -- 49 by Nadal, 45 by Djokovic -- as well as point-extending defense, sneakers squeaking as the players scurried around the court. The key, perhaps, was this: Nadal went through a stretch of 45 points without making an unforced error, and he made only two in the fourth set. It's not as though he was playing safe, either, cranking up his groundstrokes and aiming for the lines.
Djokovic claimed the second set by breaking Nadal in the final game, getting back a deep return off a 122 mph serve. Nadal was on his heels -- a rare sight, indeed -- and slapped a forehand into the net. That gave Djokovic three breaks in a span of 10 service games, against a player who was broken twice the first 92 times he served.
It would be the only set lost of 22 played by Nadal in New York this year, as he came oh-so-close to being the first man in a half-century to win this tournament without dropping a set.
Nadal was back to his relentless best in the third and fourth, hitting shots so well that Djokovic was moved to applaud on occasion. A drop volley here, a running backhand passing winner there, most delivered with a sneer.
Nadal broke for 2-1 leads in each of those last two sets, then arrived at match point by sprinting to reach a drop shot and whipping a forehand that landed right on the baseline.
Djokovic hit a forehand wide to end it, and Nadal fell backward onto the court with a shout. He rolled onto his stomach, his chest heaving -- finally the champion in New York after losing in the semifinals the previous two years.
Now he's the first left-hander to win the U.S. Open since John McEnroe in 1984, and the first Spaniard since Manuel Orantes in 1975.
"Nadal ... is just proving each day, each year, that he's getting better. That's what's so frustrating, a little bit. He's getting better each time you play him," Djokovic said.