Indefatigable

US Open, Final

(2) Nadal d. (1) Djokovic, 6/2 3/6 6/4 6/1

Rafael Nadal tonight defeated Novak Djokovic to win his second US Open title, continuing a return to the men’s tour that has surely surpassed even the secret hopes of his most ambitious fans. It has been a comeback to beggar belief, an opinion I’ll continue to maintain despite the fact that Greg Rusedski agrees with it. If anything, Rusedski went further, and summarily declared it to be the greatest comeback in sporting history. One questions both the length and breadth of his historical perspective, given he’d earlier insisted the match was well on the way to becoming the greatest US Open final ever played. It certainly wasn’t that, though it undeniably had its moments. Mike Stobe/Getty Images North AmericaThe longest of these moments was a 54-stroke rally destined to pad out innumerable highlights packages. The best of them came at the very end as Nadal collapsed in ecstasy to the court, victorious in New York once more.

First some numbers, which can as ever be relied upon to render the achievement excitingly comprehensible. This US Open is Nadal’s thirteenth Major overall, which moves him to third on the all-time list of titlists, one ahead of Roy Emerson, and trailing only Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. Since returning to the tour in February he has contested thirteen events, reaching the final at all but one of them (Wimbledon), and winning the title ten times. (This incidentally equals the number of titles Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has won in his entire career). He has won sixty matches, easily the most on tour, and lost just three. Today he became just the third player ever to sweep the main events comprising the US summer, meaning Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open (the other two men were Andy Roddick in 2003, and Pat Rafter in 1998). Overall Nadal has compiled an astonishing 22-0 record on hardcourts this year, and hasn’t technically lost a hardcourt match since Indian Wells last year.

Nadal’s previous US Open title came in 2010, although I’ll court opprobrium and suggest that today’s title is more convincing, insofar as the convincingness of tournament victories is something that can or should be measured. There was a prevailing sense that his first title, for all that it completed his career Grand Slam, was a testament to opportunism. The fast New York decoturf was generally held to be his worst surface. Meanwhile the two best hardcourters at the time – Federer and Djokovic – had fought each other to a standstill in the late semifinal, after Nadal had already breezed past a wearied Mikhail Youzhny, having faced no one more threatening before that. Realistically his path to this year’s final hasn’t been much more taxing: replace Verdasco with Robredo, and a tired Youzhny with a blown Gasquet. The difference is that this time round Nadal was deservedly one of the pre-tournament favourites, and, given his recent results and form, it is perverse to pretend he is now anything but entirely suited to outdoor hardcourts. Favourites always have an easier draw, since by definition they rarely face anyone they are not expected to defeat. He had a favourable US Open draw for the same reason he has favourable draws at Roland Garros: because he earned it.

Nadal might have been a favourite, but he was by no means unbackable, especially when facing the other favourite. Djokovic is still the world number one, even if it is now a rare day that he recaptures the form of his majestic 2011 season, and rarer still to see him sustain it outside of Australia. It’s been the pattern of his year, and it was his pattern in tonight’s final. When Djokovic played at his best, and more importantly, when he thought at his best, he was the better player. But he couldn’t keep it up. Nadal began exceptionally well, once more employing the tactic that had served him well in the French Open semifinal, of pressing hard up the line with his forehand early in the rallies, invariably catching Djokovic out. Djokovic also reprised his strategy from Paris, which was to eschew tactical clarity of any sort, and to avoid the authoritative backhand up the line that once ranked among the sport’s most fearsome shots. The two players combined for a one-sided 6/2 first set.

The change came in the second set, and it had little to do with Nadal, who continued to strike his forehand ferociously. Suddenly he was having fewer of them to hit, and he was increasingly obliged to hit them from less stable positions. Djokovic hadn’t started to strike the ball better, but he was now directing it far more intelligently, which enabled him to control the rallies. Then, having established himself, he did start to strike the ball better, and abruptly revealed the fearsome version of himself from two years ago, the one who would patiently pummel Nadal backhand until it cracked, and who would only bring the Spaniard’s forehand into play at a moment of his choosing. Djokovic romped through the latter stages of the second set, and moved ahead a break in the third.

Then inexplicably, he abandoned this winning game-plan, and fell back into patternless hitting. Why he did so, one cannot imagine. Nadal’s backhand isn’t a poor shot by any standards – even when he isn’t hitting it that well it remains solid, and today he was hitting it well – and perhaps it doesn’t feel so gentle when it’s coming at you. But it certainly doesn’t measure up to his forehand. More importantly, it doesn’t measure up to Djokovic’s forehand, which is the match up that matters, or would have mattered if Djokovic had only maintained it. It would be useful to see Hawkeye data on Djokovic’s groundstroke placement for that period when he was ascendant, as compared to his placement for the rest of the match. I suspect it would be sufficiently revealing that even he as a player might take notice. Certainly it would tell us more than unforced errors, of which Djokovic hit several hundred. Alas, the presiding powers keep their data close, preferring to use them to generate complicated metrics of use to nobody.

Nadal is probably the best player I have ever seen at sustaining apparently mortal blows yet remaining unbowed, having proved his resilience in countless matches, especially against Federer. He knows in his bones that while anyone can ascend to stratospheric heights for a time, even the very best must come down for oxygen eventually. If they don’t, then well-played to them, but if they do . . . Djokovic had been soaring into orbit, but the moment his throat constricted, Nadal leaped forward, and planted his foot on it. I suspect this made it hard to think clearly. With his mind gone, Djokovic’s body soon followed. Before long he was spraying balls everywhere, and was broken again to drop the set. The fourth set wasn’t close, although considering the 6/1 scoreline it wasn’t especially short either. But it wasn’t too long before Nadal was accepting Djokovic’s heartfelt congratulations at the net, while 20,000 onlookers screamed affectionately at them. Nadal moves to an impressive 13-5 in Major finals, while Djokovic falls to 6-6.

CBS had its usual way with the trophy presentation, just as they’d had their way with the schedule. Having learned the lesson of the 2009 final, after which Juan Martin del Potro selfishly attempted to address his supporters in Spanish, the tournament’s broadcaster ensured today’s ceremony was as brief as it was devoid of interest. The whole thing was over in about five minutes. In Melbourne the indefatigable Kia spokesman would have barely begun his vocal warm-ups. Neither Djokovic nor Nadal bothered to dignify Mary Carillo’s inane questions with anything like an answer. Nor did they manage to look more than mildly appreciative as the lavish cash prizes were rapturously announced. Nadal bit into his silverware, and loyal American viewers were whisked away to confront the recurring enigma of Two and a Half Men (now that the smartarse kid has grown up, the enduring mystery of the show’s popularity has been augmented with confusion over which of them is actually the half-man).

Those of us lucky enough to be watching on alternative networks weren’t let off so lightly. Sky Sports had assembled its entire team on the court, though they were still one microphone short. Nadal wandered over for a chat, and hit all his marks: gracious, thoughtful and clearly keen to be elsewhere. Asked if he was going to take a rest now he responded with a chuckle that he had Davis Cup, and then ambled away. After he’d left Rusedski lamented that they hadn’t asked him whether he thought he would overtake Federer’s Major title record. I can’t imagine what Rusedski thinks Nadal’s response might have been.

The more pressing issue is when he’ll overtake Djokovic. The Serb will still be world number one when the rankings are released next week, regardless of what happens in Davis Cup, and the week after that. The change will likely come in Asia, assuming Nadal bothers to play, or maybe even if he doesn’t. Indeed, given he has precisely zero points to defend until February, Nadal enjoys the enviable luxury of being able to choose when and where he retakes the top spot. It must be a pleasant thought. Then again, one imagines that having emphatically claimed his thirteenth Major title, Rafael Nadal hardly requires another reason to feel joy.

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