NEW YORK – Three quick thoughts from the 2017 U.S. Open men’s final, where Rafael Nadal defeated Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 in two hours and 27 minutes.
• Rafael Nadal is your 2017 U.S. Open champion, winning his 16th major and third title in New York. The cynics will say that he won this with some help from the draw gods, all seven of his opponents residing outside the top 20, including Kevin Anderson in Sunday afternoon’s final. Unlike Nadal’s ball-striking, this analysis will be inaccurate. Winning his first non-clay title since early 2014, Nadal was at his Nadal-est, coming close to replicating the level he brought to bear during the clay season.
Healthy and teeming with confidence, Nadal showed off the full orbit of his game. The defense, the offense, the athleticism, the vastly underrated net play. (YouTube the point that won him the first set.) After losing the first set of his semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal simply rolled, returning serves as though propped on tees, zoning those side-winding shots and taking early leads in all sets. He finished Sunday's final winning 102 total points—including 16 of 16 at the net—and hitting 30 winners and 11 unforced errors on the match. We didn’t get Federer-Nadal but we got Nadal at his most elevated. If that is the consolation prize, sign us up.
Nadal is back at No. 1 and back atop the sport. And damn if he hasn’t earned it.
• Credit Kevin Anderson, a consummate professional who turned in the best Grand Slam result of his 10-plus-year pro career. As we saw in the women’s final, you just can’t simulate playing in a Grand Slam final for the first time. Everything from the ticket requests, to the nerves requiring a different level of energy calibration, to the knowledge that one match could completely redefine your career—it’s all different. Anderson played with poise for the first half hour. But he was broken at 3-3 in the first set and then the Mighty Nadal was awoken.
Anderson is a fine player who gives himself the best possible chances of success. He’s improved his game markedly since he came out of the University of Illinois. He’s recovered from injury. He’s benefitted from a sports psychologist and is unabashed to talk about it. But, outside of serving, he does nothing better than Nadal, lacks his lefty-ness and is not in the same class as an athlete or experienced player. Anderson had to turn in the serving match of his life to give himself a chance. When his roundhouses missed their mark, so did his title ambitions.
• Now that we’ve had our last gin and tonic of the summer—and the 2017 summer Slam season is, literally, in the books—let’s take a moment to reflect. Roger Federer started the year at No. 17; Rafael Nadal was barely clinging to the top 10. Neither held a major title. Both had entered their 30s. In Melbourne, everything breaks right, they play a dynamite five-set final in the Australian Open. The Republic of Tennis is thankful for the throwback tournament. Who knew it was a prelude to the rest of the year? In 2017, perhaps the two best players ever greedily hoarded the four majors, splitting them evenly. Far and away, they won more matches at the majors than any of their peers. They will continue battling for No. 1 through the fall, the dual axes on which the sport rotates. Adding in Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the Big Four has won 46 of the last 51 majors. Pick your player to back, but surely we can all agree: this era will never be replicated.