If you believe the embittered losing opponent, luck propelled Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2011 U.S. Open. But Djokovic's 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 dismissal of Rafael Nadal in Monday's final was a 4-hour, 10-minute testament to skill.
For most of four sets, Djokovic turned in still another masterful performance, a clinic in impenetrable hardcourt tennis. There were times this match came to resemble a video game, both players lasering shots and dueling in you-have-be-kidding-me rallies, providing exceptional entertainment with extraordinarily high-level tennis. But, as has been the case all year, Djokovic racked up the higher score.
"I've played a great match really from the start to the end," Djokovic said. "When you play that well, you must enjoy."
The match was not lacking suspense. The third game of the second set stretched at least 17 minutes and needed eight deuces and a 27-shot rally before Nadal eventually was broken on a missed overhead smash. The third set saw three breaks of serve on each side, a 31-shot rally -- the longest of the match -- and a display of bashing groundstrokes that had etiquette-conscious fans in Ashe shushing their rowdy counterparts. So grueling and physical was the level of play that Djokovic would need treatment on his back after the third set.
So here's where we are: A year after Nadal won three major titles, and four years after Roger Federer last did the same, Djokovic has now joined the club, too, another bit of garnish on perhaps the finest men's single season in Open Era history. With all four majors in the books and just a few tournaments remaining, Djokovic has lost a grand total of twice this year. He has 10 titles. Federer, Nadal and now Djokovic? We should all be red-faced from this embarrassment of riches.
"It's definitely going to take a lot of effort to try to repeat even half of what I have done this year for next year," said Djokovic, who became the sixth man in the Open era to win three Grand Slame events in the same year. "Look, I'm trying to enjoy the present, enjoy this moment, and then I will think about future later."
Federer's gifts were always obvious: the footwork, the flair, the shotmaking, the sense that the racket was simply an appendage of his right arm. With Nadal, even the casual fan can quickly observe his funkedelic lefty spins, his power, his fight. Djokovic's gifts may not be as immediately apparent. But watch him over the course of a match and his greatness comes into focus. For one, he doesn't miss much, going games and games without making an error, pounding the ball not just with great force but with great depth, racking up winners in Costco-style bulk.
He retrieves masterfully, and then turns offense into defense. Opponents can't hit through him, nor can they hit around him. His money shot, an up-the-line backhand, is a thing of beauty. While touch is not exactly a word in heavy rotation in tennis these days, Djokovic exhibited some real deftness, winning point after point with soft drop shots. As his cocky-confidence ambulation suggests, he is dripping with belief, as well he should be.
"I'm hitting the shots that I maybe wasn't hitting in the last two, three years," Djokovic said. "I'm going for it, I'm more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major events, especially when I'm playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger. In the last couple of years, that wasn't the case. I was always kind of trying to wait for their mistakes or being out there and not really having the positive attitude and kind of believing that I can win. So this has changed."
After losing to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, Nadal was admirably candid, admitting that he would have to "find solutions" if he had hoped to beat his new nemesis, something he hadn't done since the ATP World Tour Finals in London. The means to that end won't come easy, but Nadal's aim on snapping the losing streak to Djokovic has never been more precise.
"I like to fight, I want to enjoy this battle against him," Nadal said after the match. "Six straight losses, for sure that's painful. But I'm going to work every day until that changes. So I have a goal, easy goal for me now. It's going to be tough to change the situation, but the goal is easy to see."
Nadal jumped to early leads in the first two sets, but Djokovic quickly responded. For every question Nadal posed, Djokovic had a cogent answer. Every action was met by a superior reaction. At one point Nadal readjusted his headband; maybe he was trying to loosen the Serb who'd taken up residence there.
"His level is really, really high," Nadal said.
After the first eight glorious days, the rain came and this event devolved into chaos, the sport's undercarriage on vivid display for all to see. Players griped about the tour, their representation and authority in general. The USTA left itself open to charges of profligacy, of putting profit motives and television interest before the health of the players, infuriating innumerable fans with schedule changes. Serena Williams, at age 29, revealed herself to be an ill-tempered and self-delusional bully, whose legacy as a champion will be stained by still another antisocial outburst. Philipp Petzschner may have won the doubles, but he lost respect with this ethical lapse.
Even the good guys turned bad, cracking like the Louis Armstrong court surface. Federer lost in the semifinals after squandering a pair of match points and then made the truly bizarre point that Djokovic somehow won by playing recklessly. Mike Bryan was fined $10,000 for bumping an official.
Yet on this -- the fourth straight Monday final -- we got a glimpse of tennis at its best. Honest competition. Athleticism. Fluctuating momentum. A sport whose best practitioners marry offense and defense. As he has throughout this golden year, Djokovic comported himself like a charismatic pro, who plays hard, yes, but works harder. Thanks mostly to the top seed's peerless play, this tournament of anarchy finally ended with order.