September 10, 2013
Rafael Nadal hit new, outrageous heights to win one of the greatest US Open finals in history.
And few can doubt that Nadal – not Djokovic – is currently the greatest tennis player on the planet. ‘He brings my tennis to a new level, I don’t know how I managed to beat him,’ said Rafa of Novak. ‘This is the most emotional year of my career.’
To those of us watching in near-astonishment, it was hard to believe anything we saw under the lights at Flushing Meadows. How can such an unremarkable scoreline even hint at the magic required to win this mesmerising duel? What can 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 tell us about the subtlety and brutality of this extraordinary performance by Nadal, a player who feared for his career last Christmas?
Killer brilliance, crushing creativity, hurtful winners, no nerves. Has anyone ever played tennis quite like this?
First Rafa found these precious qualities, then Novak stole them. Finally, tellingly, Rafa seized the initiative again, until a 13th Grand Slam title was his. Nadal collapsed in tears, scarcely able to take in what he has achieved. A tenth title this year, 22 successive hard court wins. The best pair of players in the universe had taken turns to defy the laws of nature, they had touched the impossible, then fallen back down to earth – only briefly in Nadal’s case.
In the first set Rafa seemed to dismantle Djokovic piece by piece, remove what was left of the Serb’s confidence by adding to the heartbreak of Roland Garros. But just when the Spaniard looked certain to lift the title without argument, something changed in that second set. Novak edged a magical, 54-shot break point to hit back at 4-2. The crowd roared, Novak raised his arms, then Rafa broke straight back, forcing Djokovic to do it all over again. The official world number one summoned fresh powers, hit cleanly and found clear winners to break afresh. He took the set 6-3 with a scintillating backhand pass. But the effort required was immense. When you have to go through hell just to win a point, are forced to scale a tennis Everest to claim a game, must travel almost to another solar system to take a set, you know you’re up against it. You might just worry you aren’t the best player in the world any more.
Seemingly spurred on by that fear, Djokovic could yet have won it. The Serb mixed awesome defence with sharp attack, drop-shots to die for and clubbing forehands. He quickly sent Rafa into more self-doubt. Djokovic raced to a 3-1 lead in the third, and looked on course for another title of his own. Then Novak exploded, almost inexplicably.
We remembered the marathon against Stan Wawrinka just two days earlier – and began to understand the problem. Yet Djokovic refused to succumb completely to fatigue, at least not just yet. He forged three break points at 4-4 in the third. But he squandered them all, and another at the start of the fourth. Novak’s hopes of winning his first Grand Slam of a heartbreaking year probably ended right there.
Relentless Rafa wasn’t to be denied. He is the true number one, even if the mathematicians are yet to proclaim him so. For Nadal, of course, the clay and hard courts have made it a fairytale comeback in 2013. He hasn’t been beaten on a hard court this year. But what do statistics matter, when the middle two sets in New York were among the greatest ever played – anywhere.
We look forward to seeing the real Rafa return to the lawns of Wimbledon again next year. He’ll be hungry for success after this summer’s set-back on grass. He is sure to be stronger. For Nadal isn’t just back to his old, spectacular self. The new Rafa is even better than before. And that, ladies and gentleman, is not an experience to be missed.