There was almost no chance Rafael Nadal was going to let this golden opportunity slip through his fingers.
And he didn’t.
The 31-year-old won the US Open men’s singles title Sunday, the 16th Grand Slam title of his illustrious career, in a routine 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over No. 28 seed Kevin Anderson.
“Very happy, no? Been a great two weeks. Increasing level of tennis, increasing of confidence during that two weeks. Yeah, I have this trophy with me again here in New York. Means a lot to me, no? There is no better way to finish the Grand Slam season for me after a very emotional season in all aspects,” Nadal said.
“So very happy the way that I played, happy the way that I managed the pressure, and the way that I was competing during the whole event, no? Playing better or worse, the competitive spirit have been there in a very positive way all the time.”
The man from Mallorca finished off his old friend with a serve and winning backhand volley on match point. The aggressive move punctuated a tournament that began a little shakily, but steadily gathered steam until the end result was almost a formality.
As Anderson pointed out in a most eloquent speech during the trophy ceremony, he and Nadal are almost exactly the same age. And yet he feels as though he’s been watching Nadal his entire life.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 10, 2017
“Obviously very pleased of making my way through to the finals and having that experience. Few players, you know, get that chance. It’s very tough. To step out on court against Rafa tonight, you know, I learned a lot of lessons. It was a difficult match, up against somebody who has been on that stage over 20 times before,” Anderson said. “You know, definitely a few things I needed to have done better. Obviously I had my work cut out for me. But I think overall, obviously it’s been a very, very positive two weeks for me.”
The 6-foot-8 Anderson David to Nadal’s Goliath
The abyss in their professional accomplishments, Grand Slam experience and rankings made this a nearly impossible dream for Anderson. The South African fully deserved his spot in the final but would have had to overcome the highest mountain to take that final step into the history books.
Anderson’s biggest weapon – by far – is his serve. He was broken four times.
Every single service game in the first set felt like a struggle for the 6-foot-8 South African. And it only got slightly easier after that.
He had 10 aces. But Nadal’s back was to the wall – literally, not figuratively – for most of the day on the return.
It was as though he were saying, “You’re not going to get one past me. I’m going to chase every single serve down, no matter how hard you hit it, and make you do something else to beat me.”
But the biggest reason Anderson lost was that he couldn’t generate a single break point on Nadal’s serve.
In the end, Nadal won 45 points on Anderson’s serve, 42 per cent of the total despite regularly returning deliveries in the 130-mph range. Anderson won … 15 points on Nadal’s serve, just 21 per cent of the total points.
If he had trouble holding his own serve, and found it impossible to break Nadal’s serve, there was no feasible way he was going to turn it around.
“I don’t know if is him or me, is a combination of both things always, no? But I think I played the right match, the match that I have to play. I put a lot of balls in. I let him play all the time, and that was my goal, no? To try to have long rallies, to try to have long points, because he will try to play short (rallies),” Nadal said. “But of course if the ball is going over the net couple of times helps, because he gets more tired. He’s taller. His movements are a little bit worse than my ones. That was the goal for me, no, to take advantage and try to move him.”
Nadal’s final volley was emblematic of his day. He went 16-for-16 at the net.
Rafa loves New York
It’s somewhat counterintuitive that Nadal, the simple fellow from the small resort island in the Balearic Sea, absolutely loves New York.
But he does. He adores the crowds, the buzz the fans create, and no doubt lamented that he hadn’t managed to win more than two titles here.
But there have been some formidable opponents in his way, players who are far more accomplished on the hard courts.
Roger Federer, of course. And Novak Djokovic. And even Andy Murray.
Nadal has played at Flushing Meadows 13 times in his career, missing it in 2012 and 2014 because of injury. Until Sunday, he had won it just twice.
In 2010, he produced the most powerful serving fortnight he had ever had, before or since. After the first round, Nadal faced six consecutive opponents in the top 50 and only lost one set – to Novak Djokovic in the final.
In 2013, he faced five top-40 players and rolled over Novak Djokovic in the final, in four sets.
Until Sunday, Nadal hadn’t won any hard-court events in more than three years, until Sunday. He says that sounds worse than it actually was.
“Is true that I was not winning titles on hard for some time, but as I say the other day, is not that I was playing bad on hard. I played the final in Australia. I played the final in Acapulco, final in Miami. Ready to win titles. Didn’t happen, is true,” he said. “It happened today. So very happy for that, and the US Open is an amazing event. The energy that this city and this court brings to me is unbelievable, no? I feel very connected with them, and I enjoy the passion that I feel in that court.”
Opportunity knocked, and Nadal answered
This year, Nadal is having a renaissance season along with his old rival Federer. But still, his losses to 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov in Montreal and a brilliant Nick Kygios in Cincinnati were hardly the preparation worthy of a player who would the US Open just a few weeks later.
But opportunity knocked.
The men’s field was decimated this year: Djokovic, Murray, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic were just a few of the missing. Federer came in underprepared and clearly physically hampered on some level. And with the draw top-heavy, Nadal had to know that if he got to the final – as he typically will do if you look at his success rate in Grand Slam semifinals – it was his to lose.
Nadal defeated Dusan Lajovic (No. 85), Taro Daniel (No. 121), lucky loser Leonard Mayer (No. 59), Alexander Dolgopolov (No. 64) and Andrey Rublev (No. 53) to reach the semifinals. Not a single seed among them.
In the final four, he met a Juan Martin del Potro depleted from an unlikely come-from-behind victory in the fourth round, and an emotional win over Federer in the quarters.
Had Nadal not taken this wide-open opportunity and grabbed it with both hands, he would have had an awful lot of trouble forgiving himself for letting it slip away.
A great rebound season
At the French Open a year ago, Rafael Nadal pulled out in the first week with a wrist injury that had been bothering him during the clay-court season. He missed Wimbledon, and only made it back for the Olympics in Rio because it meant so very much to him.
A year later, he has won his 10th French Open. And now, the US Open. And made the final in a third Slam as well.
“I tell you what happened last year. I was ready to win Roland Garros last year. That’s the real thing. I don’t say if I don’t get injury, I will win Roland Garros, because is something that is impossible to predict, but I really and honestly can tell you that I felt myself ready to win Roland Garros, because I was playing well. But of course when you get injury, then seems like the season is a disaster,” he said.
“But here we are, and just can say thanks to life for that opportunity. I think I did the right work. I believed on the work, on the daily work all the time. And I still believe on these things to improve. I wake up every morning with the passion to go on court and to try to improve things. Probably that’s why I still have chances to compete in this sport and to do it well. That’s all.”
2017 was nuts; 2018 could be NUTS
Which is not to say there’s an asterisk on No. 16. In the end, you can only defeat the player who shows up to take you on that day. That players were missing, or lost early, or couldn’t physically get through the seven matches required to win a major was most definitely not Nadal’s problem.
This year’s Grand Slam season began with that annual hope that one of the next generation would break through and win. In the end, Nadal has two majors (the French and US Opens). And Federer has the other two (The Australian Open and Wimbledon).
By the time 2018 rolls around, you would expect the walking wounded back. But their rankings will have taken a hit.
If you thought this US Open was a free-for-all, wait until Melbourne in January.