September 11, 2017
They did it emphatically. Two fine champions who have been on difficult journeys – and returned looking even better than they had ever been before. Rafael Nadal and Sloane Stephens, we salute you.
Nadal secured his second Grand Slam of the year and he did it in style, beating Kevin Anderson by a comfortable margin of 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.
Not bad for a man whose ability to win another major – ever – was questioned less than two years ago by the great John McEnroe.
The effect of Nadal’s win could be great for world tennis and great for Wimbledon 2018 in particular.
If thoughts of retirement had begun to enter Roger Federer’s head after a disappointing US Open – where he admitted that even victories depended more on opponents than him – all that will probably now change.
The legendary Federer, with his nineteen Grand Slams, must start looking over his shoulder again. Nadal is back to within three Slams of the all-time great.
Such is Nadal’s dominance of the French Open on clay, that, if he stays fit, he could bag another couple of majors at Roland Garros alone.
Could he win two more Slams elsewhere before retiring? Why not? And that would put him on twenty, one ahead of the man widely regarded as the greatest.
Federer will know as much, and he will be determined to extend his own total to twenty and perhaps even beyond.
Where does his best chance of reaching that landmark lie? Wimbledon 2018, of course. His favourite tournament and the grass he calls home.
So it might just be that we see more of Roger Federer, precisely because of Rafael Nadal’s victory at the US Open.
Roger will need to achieve fresh fitness to make this work for him, of course. He won’t play on just to make up the numbers if he doesn’t think he can win another Slam.
But the beauty of the situation is that Federer must still know deep down that he can indeed win another Slam – and so can Nadal.
So we are still in the golden era, as much now as ever before, and the greatest champions of all have as much reason as they ever had to maintain their intensity and prepare for more direct clashes on court at the 2018 Slams.
As for Sloane Stephens, her 6-3, 6-0 victory over the favourite for the US Open final, Madison Keys, completed her own comeback story, one which is perhaps even more remarkable than Nadal’s return from nagging injuries and a crisis in confidence.
Stephens was ranked 957 in the world just six weeks ago, when she had been out injured for some time and her very future in the sport might have been called into question.
It is a rapid climb back to a glorious peak after such a painful free-fall, by any sporting standards – perhaps one of the greatest bounce-backs in the history of tennis.
Sloane said: ‘There are no words to describe how I got here, because if you told anyone this story they’d be like, “that’s insane!”‘
We can’t wait to welcome Stephens at Wimbledon 2018. Imagine a clash between Sloane, with her new Grand Slam pedigree, and the returning Serena Williams on Centre Court? That would be something to savour!
So what sets Nadal and Stephens apart from the pack? What made them winners at Flushing Meadows? They got stronger and stronger as the tournament went on.
And in the wider scheme of things, they always believed that the bad times would come to an end sooner or later, even when they were at their lowest ebb and being written off.
The vanquished Anderson, meanwhile, had a marvellous fortnight and did his best at the showpiece occasion.
But as we had pointed out in another blog, when you celebrate a semi-final as though you have won the final, you know that a big part of you feels you have gone as far as you can go.
Part of you doesn’t believe that the final itself is everything, that you can win it, and the semi-final was merely a means to get there. Maybe Anderson’s mindset still needs work.
Nadal seems almost impossibly strong mentally. This wasn’t the case during the opening two matches he played in New York, when he struggled to find his best form and looked vulnerable to a first-week giant-killing.
By his third match he had made the necessary mental and tactical adjustments, and opponents began to fear him again. Anderson soon did, it seemed.
Despite a competitive start and the opening three games lasting around twenty minutes, Anderson never looked like mounting a serious challenge once he had squandered an early break point.
His nerves settling rapidly and his game looking invincible, Nadal flexed his tennis muscles and the South African, well known on the circuit as one of the nice guys, didn’t get mean enough to mount sustained resistance to the seemingly inevitable.
So Rafa was crowned champion and took Grand Slam number sixteen. We thought the race to be all-time-great might hot up again after the events in New York. Now it will!
Rafa tried to play the rivalry with Federer down after victory. But he wasn’t fooling anyone. Nadal said: ‘I have sixteen. So three is a big difference. I really don’t think much about this kind of thing’.
‘Well done for Roger that he is having an amazing season. And well done for me because I’m having a great season too!’
‘Tennis is not all about Grand Slams, there are more tournaments to come, so I’m excited about the last part of the season.’
Another all-time-great triumphed in New York. Look what Martina Hingis achieved in the mixed doubles with Britain’s very own Jamie Murray!
Then she followed that up by winning the women’s doubles too, teaming up with Taiwan’s Chan Jung-Jan to beat Czechs Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova 6-3, 6-2. Two Grand Slam titles in two days. Incredible! And she has now won 25 in all!
‘Yeah, 25 sounds pretty amazing,’ said Hingis, ‘I’m definitely very proud.’
At almost 37, that memorable Hingis competitive spirit is still very much alive and kicking, as she and Andy Murray’s brother took it to the wire in the mixed against Chan Hao-Ching and Michael Venus.
The joy they displayed in the moment of victory, after taking the instant breaker to secure their win by 6-1, 4-6, 10-8, showed how much that winning feeling still means to Hingis – and Murray too.
One more happy memory from a great US Open. Well done New York! The next Slam takes place in Melbourne, Australia in the New Year. But there’s lots more tennis to be played before then, as Rafa pointed out!
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