Rafael Nadal does, of course, share an era with Roger Federer, which has done the era plenty of good, but this season and this year’s United States Open now belong exclusively to Nadal.
There were times, in his earlier years, when it seemed too much to ask for Nadal to hold up the trophy in New York.
The courts were supposed to be too quick for his big forehand backswing. The balls were supposed to bounce too low for his extreme grip. The lack of an overwhelming serve made it too tough to win easy points. The combined weight of the early season, with all those inevitable clay-court victories and his hard-charging style, were too much for a body — even his body — to bear.
But Nadal, with his 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Novak Djokovic in Monday night’s rain-interrupted United States Open final, has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there are no limits to his range or appetite.
Playing against an opponent who had beaten him in their last three matches, all on hardcourts, the No. 1-seeded Nadal prevailed in 3 hours 43 minutes in the face of inspired resistance to become, at age 24, the youngest man in the Open era to complete a career Grand Slam.
Nadal, the relentless left-handed competitor from Spain, did so by wearing down the third-seeded Djokovic with his phenomenal court coverage, consistent returns and improved serve, particularly the sliced serve to the ad court that forced Djokovic to release the second hand from his backhand and lunge in desperation on multiple occasions.
“More than what I dreamt,” said Nadal, when asked on court to put his first United States Open victory into words.
From start to finish — with a 1-hour-57-minute rain delay in between — this was not Nadal’s finest performance. He had not lost a set on his way to the final and had dropped his serve just twice.
Against Djokovic, he was broken three times and struggled with his timing from the baseline in some early phases of the match, mis-hitting ground strokes and also struggling to capitalize on his own break-point opportunities, failing to convert on 20 in total. That was in part because Djokovic continued to play remarkably bold tennis under pressure, just as he had in his five-set victory over Federer in Saturday’s semifinals.
But there can be no quibbling with the bottom line. Nadal, in his first United States Open final, was the more irresistible force: quite capable, when necessary, of summoning a higher gear than the player who will be ranked No. 2 when the new rankings are released on Tuesday.
“Right now he’s the best player in the world, and he absolutely deserves this title,” Djokovic said after Monday’s match.
Nadal earned it by transforming defense into offense in an instant, by putting 67 percent of his first serves into play and, above all, by forcing Djokovic to keep running and lunging and feeling the increasingly heavy obligation to come up with something extra.
“Rafa’s fortitude is just off the charts,” said Brad Gilbert, the veteran American coach. “He just doesn’t give up, whether or not it’s 40-love up or 40-love down. He just doesn’t take a point off.”
Djokovic did not take many vacations either. He countered Nadal’s baseline power effectively for much of the match, beginning with the extended opening rally, which set the tone for the corner-to-corner action to come. Djokovic actually came up with one more forehand winner (22 to 21) than Nadal, whose whipping forehand is his signature stroke.
But Djokovic’s serve, which has lost power in the last two seasons because of technical issues, kept putting him in danger, and Nadal kept making him work too hard to hold: putting 86 percent of his returns in play.
The cumulative effect proved too much for Djokovic, the 23-year-old Serbian who lost to Federer in the 2007 Open final but saved two match points on his way to beating Federer here.
Djokovic had the benefit of an additional day’s rest after rain on Sunday forced the final to be delayed, but Nadal still looked like the fresher, faster man down the stretch. Djokovic, who smashed a racket in anger in the first set, managed to even the match after returning from the rain delay, closing out the second set from 4-4, 30-30. But Nadal gave no hint of being demoralized, and Djokovic lost control for good early in the fourth set, when Nadal broke his serve in the third game.
“Maybe emotionally I was a little bit drained after the semifinal match, but I recovered,” Djokovic said. “I had two days, and I was motivated to win this match.”
Nadal now holds the French Open, Wimbledon and United States Open titles. When Djokovic’s last forehand sailed wide, Nadal dropped to the blue court, covered his head with both hands and then jogged toward the net and exchanged an embrace with his opponent.
“It’s just great for somebody who had so much success as he did, very young age, and to be able to continue motivating himself to perform his best each tournament, each match he plays regardless of who he has across the net,” said Djokovic, who is now 7-15 against Nadal over all.
Nadal has followed his own path from the beginning, with his uncle and coach Toni Nadal serving as his guide.
Now he has won everywhere that matters most in the game that he once chose over soccer. He is three years younger than Federer was when he rounded out his Grand Slam collection at last year’s French Open.
“Aside from the victory, what gives me a great deal of satisfaction is to see how much he has improved on fast courts,” said Toni Nadal. “It was a goal we had in mind never knowing for sure if we’d get there. But he’s returning better, serving a bit better and is closer to the baseline. The sliced backhand is much better. In the end, to see that is really satisfying.”
Though Nadal has now won 9 Grand Slam singles titles to Federer’s 16, there are a growing number within the game who feel that Nadal will eventually challenge Federer’s numbers.
“I think this victory says that we should stop talking about Federer being the greatest player of all time,” said Mats Wilander, the former United States Open champion from Sweden. “I truly believe that. We can say that Roger is, but there’s no point in doing that until Nadal is done. It’s already unfair to me to say Roger is because Rafa is beating him all the time on every surface and in the Slam finals.”