Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 on Monday to win his second U.S. Open title. Here are three thoughts after the 27-year-old Spaniard collected his 13th Grand Slam title while improving to 22-0 on hard courts and 60-3 overall this year:
• All hail Rafael Nadal, the king of
clay hard courts. A day after the top two women played a match of can-you-top-this, the men followed suit. For more than three hours, as afternoon transitioned to evening, Nadal and Djokovic played a dazzling match.
They split the first two sets (of course they did), and then Nadal went into beast mode. He hit forehands that veered on brutal. He turned defense into offense. He zinged winners off his back feet. He unsheathed a few new weapons. He sliced to brilliant effect, changing pace and frustrating Djokovic. He altered his court positioning, making a conscious effort not to be pinned deep, especially on the backhand side. He returned well, breaking Djokovic seven times. When Nadal declared himself "very hoppy," I think he means that literally -- spry, springy and absent of knee trouble.
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The confidence that eluded him during his six-match losing streak to Djokovic in 2011 was back in full force. Even in dire moments -- and during most of the third set -- Nadal's will was unbreakable.
"Probably nobody brings my game to the limit like Novak," Nadal said after upping his record to 22-15 against Djokovic, including six victories in their last seven meetings.
Every Grand Slam title has its own savor and flavor. But after seven matches of sufficiently high quality to induce nosebleeds, after a first-round defeat at the previous Slam, after missing this event a year ago -- this win was extra sweet for Nadal.
"Probably only my team knows how much [this] means for me,'' he said.
• What a strange match, a strange tournament and a strange year for Novak Djokovic. He is (for now) ranked No. 1 and his scorecard at the four majors reads as follows: W/SF/F/F. No shame there. But his year was strangely unsatisfying, and Monday was his year writ small.
The 26-year-old Serb competed gamely and brilliantly. He won that absurd 54-point rally. But he missed that extra gear and has given up the tenancy he once occupied in Nadal's head. Djokovic couldn't hold a break lead at 3-2 in the third set, he was unable to convert on triple break point at 4-4 and he was broken at 4-5 to lose the set.
"I had my momentum from midway in the second set to the end of the third where I was supposed to use and realize the opportunities that were presented to me, and I didn't do it," Djokovic said. "I didn't deserve to win in the end."
The status of Roger Federer is the biggest question as the offseason approaches, but it will be interesting to see where Djokovic goes from here.
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• No question about the top player right now. For the immediate future, the rankings will say that Nadal is No. 2. But is there any doubt that he has reclaimed the throne of the Tennis Kingdom? Undefeated on hard courts, Nadal didn't just win the Open; he hijacked the Open with a sensational effort, two weeks of video-game-quality tennis, predicated on a pair of healthy knees.
No sport does quirk like tennis, and in Nadal we have a guy who missed the first Grand Slam tournament of the year and was eliminated from another in the first round. But he won virtually everything else (he has nine titles), beating old rivals and new rivals, doing it with defense and with offense, with skill and with will. He's the only male to win multiple majors in 2013, enough for MVP honors.
If he's healthy and dominates on clay and dominates on cement and battles as though losing carries a price in blood, what exactly is stopping him from this continued assault -- both on history and the rest of the field?
Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible," said Djokovic, a six-time major winner. "Whatever he achieved so far in his career is something that everybody should respect, no question about it. He's definitely one of the best tennis players ever to play the game."