Nadal makes no mistake in US Open win

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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.

Nadal
Nadal’s third US Open win, coming seven years after his second, is all the more sweet.

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.

“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.

Nadal
Nadal is not a small fellow. But he’s dwarfed by the 6-foot-8 South African.

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.

Nadal
Nadal missed some opportunities in the first set. But his overall level – especially on return – was far superior to his game but overmatched opponent.

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.

Nadal
Nadal stayed fairly cool throughout the final. And his calm, joyful reaction after the win reflected that.

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.

Nadal to meet Anderson in US Open final

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NEW YORK – The list of absentees in the men’s singles draw for this US Open almost guaranteed that some outlier, some inspirational longshot, would make a big run out of the bottom half of the draw.

That happened.

But in the end, the No. 1 ranked player in the world made it, too.

Rafael Nadal will play for his 16th Grand Slam title, his third US Open title on Sunday. And he’ll face a longshot who is seeking his first major title, in his first major final.

Sounds like a mismatch, on paper. But tennis isn’t played on paper.

South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, who would have been unseeded with a full field but ended up in the No. 28 slot, defeated No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 in the first men’s semifinal of the day Friday.

Anderson
Anderson was almost in disbelief, but absolutely thrilled, after beating Pablo Carreño Busta in the US Open semifinals

In the nightcap, Nadal survived a shaky first set. After that, he ran over a depleted Juan Martín del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.

Early tactical woes

Two days before, after losing to him in the quarterfinals, a tired Roger Federer said he thought del Potro would have a better shot at beating Nadal.

But after back-to-back emotional matches to get here, the Argentine used up whatever energy reserve he had left in the first set.

Anderson
Nadal was pretty psyched with the victory, which will have him playing for his third US Open title on Sunday.

It was the 15th consecutive Grand Slam semifinal won by Nadal. The last one he lost was to del Potro – a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing in that 2009 US Open that remains the only major on the Argentine’s resumé.

The first set had Nadal so far back behind the court, he was practically on a first-name basis with the fans in the front row. His game plan evidently had been to pound del Potro’s weaker backhand with his own forehand, a cross-court pattern that you wouldn’t think would favor del Potro.

But the backhand held up. It was fairly clear that del Potro’s plan was to hit out with his two-handed backhand as much as he could, throwing his ongoing concern for his surgically repaired wrist to the wind.

He knew – everyone in Arthur Ashe Stadium knew, too – that slicing to Nadal’s forehand was going to mean an early shower.

Adjustments on the fly

In the second set, Nadal reset.

Perhaps his uncle and coach Toni Nadal had a direct pipeline to Nadal on that sit-down. Because just as he was outlining the adjustments thought his nephew should make during an interview with ESPN, Nadal did exactly that.

“This match, we have a problem. When Rafael hits the ball with his forehand to del Potro’s backhand, our forehand is not good enough. And del Potro can play easy with his backhand, and then he makes better shots with his forehand,” Toni Nadal told Pam Shriver. “In my opinion, Rafael has to give more power in every shot. And go sometimes to the net.

“The problem is he has go more to the ball, not waiting (for) the ball, and sometimes he gives too much spin. He has to hit it.”

The spinny forehand is the telltale sign of nerves for Nadal.

Pooped del Potro

But by the second set, as del Potro was running on fumes, Nadal knew exactly what to do. He literally doubled the number of balls he hit to del Potro’s forehand in the last three sets.

And Nadal against a winded, wounded opponent can be pretty merciless.

He even began taking far less time between points on serve, robbing del Potro of much needed recovery time between points. Tactically, it was a great move.

“Of course I went on court with the idea to hit more against his backhand. But at the same time, knowing that I have to play against his forehand, too. Sometimes you need to lose or you need to see that things are not going well to really take that position and I made it. That’s what happen, no? After losing the first set, I say if I keep going that way, maybe I going to be two sets against (me) quick, so now is the moment to change,” Nadal said.

“And I changed and it worked well. Sometimes (it doesn’t) work well. Today worked well, and I’m happy. I think I am with confidence. I am doing the right things, and my serve worked well. But I changed a little bit the directions in the first set. I think that I was serving too much against his backhand, too, and then I started to change the rhythm of the serve. That was very important too, no?

“The most important thing is, after the first set, in my opinion, he didn’t hit balls in a row from good positions. That makes the difference.”

Good form, right attitude

Nadal’s serve has been on point this summer, even in the matches he has lost.

It’s not what it was when he won the US Open in 2010; that year, he was firing it up to 130 mph at times. But he’s got more velocity on it than he has had in recent years. And he’s being a little less predictable with it. He’s holding serve impressively.

Del Potro had just two break-point opportunities the entire match. The one he did convert in the first set came after a let cord that went his way.

Nadal also went 21-for-27 at the net.

“I think I never had the control of the match. I just have lucky to (break) his serve with the net point. He was playing me all the time to my backhand. When you don’t have that confidence to play three, four hours with a good backhand against Rafa, is just matter of time to get down your game. But also, he improve very much his game after the second set, and his balls come too fast from both sides.” Del Potro said.

“I think at the beginning of the match, he was playing all the time to my backhand, trying to see how good is my backhand at this moment. It was good, but it wasn’t good enough to play four-set, five-set match. And I couldn’t make any winner in the match, which you must do a lot of winners against Rafa.”

Old foes meet again

In Anderson, Nadal meets a longtime acquaintance, going all the way back to the 12-and-under junior tour. They are just two weeks apart, with Anderson being the elder.

The way the South African celebrated after winning his semifinal against Carreño Busta, you wonder what he might have left in the bag should he buck all the odds and beat Nadal on Sunday.

Anderson
Usually this happens after a final. But Anderson impressively climbed up to the player’s box to celebrated with his people after the win

The 6-foot-8 giant nimbly climbed up in to the player’s box to celebrate with his coach, wife and various other friends and supporters.

That’s a ritual normally reserved for finals day. But you can understand him taking the opportunity to do it on Friday.

Enjoy tonight, prepare tomorrow

Anderson
How long have Kevin Anderson and Rafael Nadal known each other? Since the 12-and-unders in Stuttgart back in the 90s.

He was talking a mile a minute on court and moving a mile a minute as well, afterwards. That’s how much the adrenaline was still flowing.

Anderson got into the top 10 – for a week – in Oct. 2015. He had issues with his knee for the longest time and at the end of last year, he began having trouble with his hip.

His ranking was down to No. 80 as the first Grand Slam tournament of the season began in Australia

“It was diagnosed as a labrum tear. I spoke to several doctors. It’s a tricky injury. … I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with some very good physios who thought I could beat it without getting surgery,” he said. “It took a lot of work. I mean, several hours a day over, you know, almost two months. Even after that, another couple months of rehab. I feel like obviously the biggest plus is when, you know, all the work you do really pays off.”

When the final major of the season is in the books, Anderson will be ranked No. 15 at worst.

If he can beat Nadal for the first time in his pro career, he will be back in the top 10.

(Oh, and there were a few golfers there).