Monday’s final match of the U.S. Open marked the beginning of a new era in men’s tennis: Rafael Nadal’s era. The 24-year-old Spaniard not only became the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam but he also did it in an incredible manner: he lost just one set and dropped serve only five times in the entire tournament.
The final itself was a most entertaining event. Even though it was not the dream final between Roger Federer and Nadal that everybody was hoping for, it was still a remarkably high-quality affair, with Novak Djokovic offering more resistance than any of Nadal’s previous opponents. Having lost serve only two times in the six rounds before, Nadal started the match with great confidence only to find himself struggling to keep up with the pace of Nole’s big forehands. As is so often the case, though, Nadal quickly readjusted his game plan and was soon able to find a way around Djokovic’s high-risk play and managed to win the first set, 6-4.
Realizing that it would take something special to beat Nadal, Djokovic stepped up his game even further and took a comfortable 4-1 lead in the second set. Yet, after a series of stunning passing shots and powerful ground strokes, Nadal leveled the score at 4-4 and it looked like he was going to steal the second set as well. However, it was the same rain that had helped Novak recover on Sunday by delaying the match that came to his rescue once again.
Play resumed two hours later and it was Djokovic who got on to a better start and managed to close the second set, 7-5. It was at this point, however, that Rafa showed why he is the world number one and will probably continue to be so for quite some time. Renowned for his incredible counter-attacking play, he started playing extremely aggressive tennis in the third set and reached numerous break points on Djokovic’s serve. Even though the Serbian star was still able to produce unbelievable winners from the base line, he had great trouble winning his service games, let alone put Nadal under pressure when he
One break of serve was enough for Nadal to win the third set, 6-4, and thus break Djokovic’s will to fight on. The final set, which ended 6-2, was more of a show for the patient audience than an even contest between two great players. So, after more than three and a half hours, Rafael Nadal managed to clinch the one Grand Slam title that was missing in his collection.
Thus, he became only the third player in the open era to complete a career Grand Slam, after Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, and the first since Rod Laver in 1969 to have won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in a single calendar year.
What is most amazing about Rafa’s accomplishment, however, is that he is only 24 years old and has already won three more Grand Slam titles than Federer at this age. It is also incredible that Nadal has managed to improve every single component of his game and has turned from a typical clay-courter into a
His average first serve speed, for example, has gone up by an astonishing 12 mph from 107 mph last year at Flushing Meadows to 119 mph during the last two weeks. What is more, he was often able to hit 135 mph serves and win easy points with those, while only a few years ago he would settle for a sliced 100 mph wide serve.
In addition, as John McEnroe often said during his commentary of the final match, Nadal has now become one of the finest volleyers in the world. Smashes, stop volleys, half volleys, you name it, Rafa can make it seem extremely easy.
Having said all this, I am sure that Nadal would have had much more trouble had he played the great Roger Federer. As unmotivated and disinterested as he might seem nowadays, Federer would have at least been better physically prepared for two five-setters in three days than was Djokovic. In addition, Federer is more capable at coping with external factors, such as rain, wind or excited audiences, than Nole will ever be.
Even so, I was glad that Federer lost in the semifinals. Still showing glimpses of his former brilliance from time to time, he is far from the unerring machine for winners he used to be in the mid-2000’s. Often losing his concentration and even his temper, something that we were not accustomed to seeing from him a few years ago, he is no longer able to compete, mentally at least, against extremely gifted and motivated young players like Nadal, Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych.
From this point of view, I can see no alternative to Rafa Nadal in the next two or three years. Yes, he have difficulty achieving a calendar Grand Slam, something that might never be accomplished in the Open Era, but he is certainly going to win a lot more titles provided that his knees do not fail him. Having won tournaments on all surfaces and on all continents and against all kinds of opponents, he will certainly be the player to beat wherever he goes. Playing as he did during the last two weeks, however, it would take something extraordinary to win a single set against him, let alone a best-of-five marathon.