US Open: Soaring Djokovic beats earth-bound Nadal
World No1 battles past the Spaniard 6-2 6-4 6-7 6-1 to win his first US Open title in New York
It was a match that hummed with anticipation. A US Open marred by hurricane, rain, cracked courts and memories of 9-11 was forced, for the fourth straight year, to play the men’s final on a third Monday but that produced the shard of light for which this event will, in years to come, be remembered.
For, unusually on the last Grand Slam day of the year, it gave a day of rest to both finalists and the two dominant players of the last year, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who had already played each other 28 times, could square up for their sixth final of the year on level terms.
What made this contest particularly compelling was the power-struggle that had unfolded since Nadal won on this same stage a year ago. In beating Djokovic to win his third Grand Slam of 2010, Nadal stood almost 5,000 points clear in the rankings.
Fast-forward 12 months and the story unfolded in a similar way. Djokovic again resisted two match points to beat Federer in a five-set semi-final and faced Nadal for the title.
But in the interim, Djokovic had beaten Nadal in five finals and taken his No1 ranking along with the Wimbledon title. Nadal, so dominant in 2010, was vulnerable: he could not find the solution to Djokovic.
The shift was writ large in their words before the contest:
Nadal: “He’s obviously the favourite for the final, and I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation”¦I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year.”
Djokovic: “I know that I have a game that is good enough to win against him. I proved that this year in three different surfaces, so I believe that I have a good chance.”
So yes, anticipation hummed just as the barely-suppressed power of a geyser or a volcano hums before it bursts into life.
They hit sparkling heights from the off. Nadal’s potent forehand broke through Djokovic’s opening service game to take an early lead, but the Serb was still finding his range. He replied with an immediate break back.
Nadal had Djokovic on the rails again in the fourth game and again it was the forehand that took a 40-15 lead. But playing through three deuces, Djokovic held, and the confidence surged through his racket.
He took up the position he would attempt to hold through the whole match””a step inside the baseline””and swung Nadal mercilessly from corner to corner. Throwing in a couple of killer drop-shots, Djokovic broke twice to win a run of six games and the opening set, 6-2.
The second set began exactly as the first. Nadal regrouped and ground his opponent through long and gruelling rallies that gradually forced a handful of errors from Djokovic. Nadal struck with a huge forehand winner down the line to break for a 2-0 lead.
Then came one of the decisive games of the match, a 17-minute fight for control of the baseline. It took eight deuces for Djokovic to convert a sixth break point on the 22nd point of the game. It felt like a winner-takes-all moment and, with the break back, the winner of this mini-battle was Djokovic.
The Serb regained a metronomic, length-perfect hitting pattern that Nadal seemed unable to break. Eventually he buckled and conceded a further break with a double fault to go 2-3 down.
Nadal became uncharacteristically preoccupied with his surroundings, not helped by a time violation warning from the umpire, and the distractions were extreme. Doors crashed, spectators shouted, and the wind gusted.
Not to be outdone, Djokovic also received a time warning but was distracted not a bit and served out to lead 4-2. He gained another break chance in the seventh game but it was Nadal who made the next break with a backhand winner down the line to level at 4-4.
What gripped Nadal at this point was unclear, but in his next service game, he fired three forehands wide, Djokovic broke and served out the set, 6-4.
It seemed that Djokovic was able to absorb every increase in level that Nadal found. The Serb had upped his service percentage to 79 in the second set and was finding more pace on his ground strokes””5 mph more””but the third set offered a glimmer of hope for Nadal.
Although Djokovic took an early break, Nadal began to see a few more second serves and got a spring in his step when he broke back to level, 2-2. The rallies remained long, thrilling and punishing””averaging around seven strikes for each point. Nadal began to slice some deep backhand returns and mixed up his length, yet still Djokovic resisted Nadal through a nine-minute fifth game to break again.
Nadal, though, had his “˜vamos’ face on and his forehand working like a jackhammer. He broke a weary-looking Djokovic to love and then held to love. Nadal had grabbed the momentum and the match was back on serve, 4-3.
In another nine-minute game, it was this time Djokovic resisting a break. He saved one break point in a 31-shot rally of stunning quality and went on to hold as the clock ticked towards three hours.
Still the set turned on a knife-edge as Djokovic found one more attack from his drained body, coming to the net for a pair of Laver-like volleys and he broke Nadal to serve for the set, 6-5. But two long Djokovic forehands later, Nadal had forced a tie-break and surged through to take it, 7-3.
All the safe money was now switching to Nadal. He had the energy, the momentum and, it seems, the greater fitness. Djokovic, summoning the trainer for some back manipulation, looked spent.
Looks, though, were deceptive. In the opening of the fourth set, Nadal ran Djokovic ragged, pulling him to the net and forcing him to make wide reaches, but the Serb held his serve before calling a medical time out””unusually ahead of his opponent’s serve.
Whatever painkiller was rubbed into Djokovic’s sore back, it worked miracles for he took Nadal to deuce, had five break point chances and, after eight minutes, took a 2-0 lead with a winning forehand.
Nadal held his next serve but a revived Djokovic had reclaimed the initiative. He went for outright winners off returns of serve down both the backhand and forehand lines. Nadal could not win another game and Djokovic’s 10th title and 64th match win of the year were sealed, 6-1, after more than four hours of brutal combat.
This is fast becoming the best performance by a player in a single year. Djokovic has so far lost just two matches””and one of those was through injury. He is the only man to beat Nadal in six consecutive matches and only the sixth man in the Open era to win three Grand Slams in a season.
He is almost guaranteed to be the year-end No1 and will launch a fresh campaign on a career Slam in 2012. And as he has beaten Nadal in Rome and Madrid, there is no reason why he cannot do the same in Paris. Then, of course, there are the 2012 Olympics.
A gold may come down to the luck of the draw. Only Federer has come close to unlocking the Djokovic padlock on tennis this year, yet he still fails to solve the Nadal mystery. Both rivals expect to be in the mix:
Federer: “It’s clear”¦that I’m feeling so good right now, it will all pay off. I know it. I haven’t felt like this in a long time, so this is a good time.”
And Nadal: “Six straight losses, for sure that’s painful. I’m going to work every day until that changes. It’s going to be tough but the goal is easy to see.”
Wherever the three fall in the Olympics draw, however, 2011 will remain forever Djokovic’s year.