US Open 2013: Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic to his 60th title

US Open 2013: Rafael Nadal beats Novak Djokovic in four sets to wrap up his second New York crown and claim a 13th Major title

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Rafael Nadal poses with the US Open trophy and his team Photo: Rafael Nadal/Facebook

It has been a US Open where many things seemed very different but where many things turned out to be much the same.

The capricious New York weather hit the schedule again, but this year it hit early and it hit defending champion Andy Murray. He was scheduled—in a very rare decision—for opening Wednesday night, but rain ensured that the day session over-ran and Murray’s became third-latest start for a US Open night session in recorded history.

Roger Federer, five-time champion, was also thrown off course. He sailed through a switch from a cool Monday night to a hot Tuesday afternoon, but he would not survive the next wet day—both rain and 91 percent humidity. He was moved from Ashe to Armstrong, along with an announcement that “The last time Federer played a US Open match on Louis Armstrong was in the 2006 fourth round. Federer won 6-3, 7-6(2), 6-3.”

This fourth-round match he lost, and to a man he had beaten in all 10 previous meetings, Tommy Robredo: “If I’m playing like this, I’m not going to beat Rafa, or Kohlschreiber, for that matter.”

He was referring to another fourth-round match that pitted Rafael Nadal against one of no fewer than six single-handed men among the last 16. Even more unusual, four of them took a place in each of the quarter-finals, and two of them went all the way to the semis: Richard Gasquet against Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka against Novak Djokovic. Each was also into his first Grand Slam semi-final.

It was not just single-handers making their mark. The last 16 contained five men in their 30s. One of them, Lleyton Hewitt, had been champion here 12 years ago. Fortune threw him in the path of the only man not in the ‘big four’ to win any Major, Juan Martin del Potro—he won in New York in 2009. Despite repeated injury setbacks and multiple surgery, Hewitt showed himself as hungry and competitive in 2013 as in 2001: He beat del Potro to reach the fourth round.

And through the twists and turns, the shocks and upsets—the fall of the No11 seed Kei Nishikori to a second Briton, Dan Evans, the stepping of Wawrinka out of Federer’s shadow to advance further in a Slam for the first time, the retirement of American James Blake, just as Andy Roddick had done last year—two men had met their obligations precisely. The two top men in the rankings, Djokovic and Nadal, converged on this appointed day.

The world No1 and Australian Open champion and the world No2 and French Open champion have met more often than any other two men in the Open era.

And while Nadal led their 37 head-to-head by 21-15, this meeting in New York was marked by a balance of power.

Nadal had won two of their three meetings this year, but Djokovic led the overall rivalry in Slam finals 3-2. And in the previous two finals at Flushing, they had shared the honours—Nadal in 2010, Djokovic in 2011—each winning their title in four sets.

That was not all. Djokovic came into the tournament with the most hard-court match wins, standing at 31-4 ahead of the final. Nadal, though, was in the midst of his best season since winning 11 titles in 2005. It included a career-best 21-match-streak on hard courts, and nine titles from 11 finals played.

Remarkably, too, Nadal had dropped only one set and suffered only one break of serve in the tournament. However he and Djokovic were separated by just four minutes in reaching the final: Djokovic in 12hrs 55min, Nadal in 12hrs 59mins.

There were two more elements that brought a fine symmetry to this final. Should Nadal win a 10th title in New York, his 60th match-win of the year would seal his 60th career title. Djokovic, already guaranteed to reach his 100th week at No1 in a fortnight, would also be set to overtake Nadal’s 102 weeks as top dog just weeks later.

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Rafael Nadal last won the US Open back in 2010 (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Despite the familiarity of the protagonists, their stage, the vast Ashe stadium, looked unfamiliar. This was a newly-scheduled Monday afternoon final and a large portion of the ticket-holders had not made it for the start. It was cool and breezy, the sun already dipped below the vast rim.

Their rivalry was laid bear for all to see in the opening four games, an immediate tussle for control. The third point of Djokovic’s opening game went to 17 strokes—but that would be small beer. He took won the rally, but faced two break points on his second game, a seven-minute effort, with Nadal pulling him wide, returning heavily from the baseline and finally breaking.

The Spaniard, though, also faced deuce, but came off the better in a 27-stroke rally to affirm his 3-1 lead. Djokovic kept trying to up the pace and tried a couple of serve and volley plays. He also tried a first drop on the last point of the Nadal serve, but the Spaniard chased it down with ease for a cross-court put-away, as was the Djokovic’s attempt in the next game. Nadal earned three break points with a forehand winner, Djokovic put a forehand long, and Nadal served out the set, 6-2.

Djokovic had played fast and strong but trailed by 20 points to 31, and had 14 errors to Nadal’s four. The Serb needed to find more.

And he did in the second set, living with Nadal to produce his first break points of the match. He made the mistake of chipping and charging mid point, only to be passed by Nadal to hold. However, Djokovic began to look more energised and confident.

He held strongly to go 3-2 and changed his strategy slightly, staying deeper to keep in the rallies before ghosting in for a neat volley put-away. It earned another break point, and the rally of the match, a 54-stroke master-class in precision and athleticism, defensive slice turned cross-court power, ended with a netted forehand from Nadal. The now-packed crowd rose in unison as the Serb’s arms went aloft.

Yet Nadal, the most bullish of players, hit straight back with a love break, only to have Djokovic force Nadal through an 11-minute service game and another break. Now with his ground strokes at their perfect best, Djokovic levelled the match, 6-3.

He carried that momentum and confidence into the third, hit an outrageous slap return-of-serve winner to make a love break of serve and, fighting off deuce and another 29-shot rally, led 2-0 after two hours.

Nadal managed to resist the onslaught through another break point and at last got a look at a few second serves to earn his chance to level. They were locked at 76 points each, and now 3-3 and a set all.

Just as one remarkable game early in the second set injected Djokovic with energy and confidence, so a remarkable game in the third did the same. Nadal, from 0-40 down, back-pedalled to retrieve a lob and crashed to the court, but he fought back with an ace to hold serve after nine minutes, and went on to break Djokovic for the set, 6-4. The Spaniard crouched, pumped, roared: He had no intention of letting this slip from his grasp.

Djokovic’s attempts to stay dominant continued to crank up errors. He now had 40 to Nadal’s 17, and that rose steadily through the fourth set. Once Nadal had survived a 28-shot rally and a break point in the opening eight-minute game, he bristled with urgency, broke and, at three hours, led 3-0. This would be the shortest set of the match, with Nadal now chasing into the net, breaking again and serving out the match, 6-1.

Nadal has perhaps never has been so emotional. He lay on the court sobbing, no doubt at the memory of not playing here last year. Indeed many feared he his knees may prevent his playing on New York’s hard courts again. Now he had a 13th Grand Slam, his 10th title of the year, his 60th title overall and, incidentally, the biggest single payout in Grand Slam history—because Nadal came here with titles in Montreal and Cincinnati, and that earned him the US Open Series bonus: a total of $3.6m.

“For a few reasons this season is probably the most emotional one in my career,” said Nadal afterwards. “I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here. It means a lot for me have this trophy with me today. It’s just amazing, a really special moment for me.”

Also in sight-and not too far over the horizon, lies the No1 ranking, though he claimed not to think about that yet: “I have Davis Cup to play!”

And indeed that is the roller-coaster-come-treadmill of the tennis tour. Nadal, after perhaps his finest 30 weeks in tennis, has just three days before playing for his country in another string of five-setters.

He will, one feels sure, still be ready.

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