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Rafael Nadal wins US Open final and confirms his greatness
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Sport US Open tennis 2010
Rafael Nadal wins US Open final and confirms his greatness
• Spaniard beats Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
• In pictures: The best images from the final
* Kevin Mitchell in New York
* guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 14 September 2010 08.54 BST
* Article history
Rafael Nadal on why he still thinks he has a way to go before he equals Roger Federer. Link to this video
Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic to win his first US Open and join six of the game's greatest players as the owner of all four grand slam titles. But, as with much of this tournament, forecasts and perceptions did not go wholly to plan, and the score – 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 – hardly reflected the depth and quality of a tennis match that more closely resembled a world heavyweight title fight.
Only in the fading stages of the fourth and final set did Djokovic wilt like a battered contender, the accumulated baggage of two five-setters in an uneven but stirring campaign taking their ugly toll.
The first of those came against his unseeded countryman Viktor Troicki, when two sets to one down in the first round two weeks ago, the second in Saturday's semi-final against Roger Federer. Last night in New York, he punched all the way to the bell. That's a fighter.
Nadal, who'd had a relatively easy ride to the final, would not be denied – but he recognised that his achievement was embellished by the courage of his opponent. At the end, Nadal rolled like a kid on the hard court, the surface that was supposed to be beyond him. Now he ruled the tennis world.
Nadal's smile remained fixed in victory, more eloquent than a thousand words. "It's more than what I dreamt," he said in his charming, halting English. "Just to arrive to this final was amazing." To the loser he said: "You're a great player, you're going to win this trophy very soon, I'm sure of that."
He was vulnerable and imperfect; he converted only six of 23 break points, to his opponent's three from four. But, ultimately, Nadal had the greater reserves of genius on which to call. He kept his unforced error count to near zero at the end, a remarkable feat, and he pulverised the white line with deep, whirring forehands. Only his backhand really let him down. But he's working on it.
It was a final that will be remembered for long, tough, exhilarating rallies, some amazing winners and impossible saves, many of them by the loser, in three hours 42 minutes of pulsating fortunes, interrupted by nearly two hours of rain.
The Spaniard was expected to win in style after reaching the final without dropping a set – a feat not matched here since Neale Fraser did it 50 years ago – but Djokovic refused to be a mere sparring partner. He'd already upset every prediction by beating Federer in a match that, to that point, could fairly be considered the finest performance of his distinguished career, even when compared with his win in the Australian Open final two years ago. This will push both close.
Last night, hunger for a second major blazed in Djokovic's eyes against his long-time friend, and it was his ambition that made it such a great fight.
In a year of outstanding sporting performances by Spain – most prominently elsewhere at the World Cup and the Tour de France – Nadal rode highest, the first player to win the French, Wimbledon and the US since Rod Laver in 1969 – and he is the first to do so on three different surfaces.
His ninth slam not only puts him seven behind the faltering Federer, but lifts him alongside Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Federer as owners of all the four slams.
The humblest of champions, he will continue to deflect what he considers excessive praise but it is unavoidable. He is still only 24 and, if his knees do not give up on him, has every chance of passing Federer's record, given the Swiss is showing signs of decline and, at 29, may not be such a force at the highest level too much longer.
Nadal would not wish that so. He admires his greatest rival – and loves beating him. He was quietly saddened he did not get the chance to do so here, as victory on Federer's favourite surface would surely have confirmed the Spaniard as his master, at least for now, and maybe for all time.
Nadal joins a fine line of his compatriots too. Spain's Manuel Santana won this title on grass 35 years ago and Manuel Orantes, on clay, won it 25 years ago, both at Forest Hills. This year, of the 13 Spaniards in the draw, seven reached the fourth round, two were in the quarters – and the best of them all won the final.
It was both a shame and predictable, then, that the finale to the 2010 grand slam season, a match that should have been a high-point in the game's recent history, was nearly reduced to a sodden farce by American television scheduling that suited the ratings and ignored the interests of the game, the players and the spectators.
Had it started earlier, the match would have been over long before the minor storm that rushed up the eastern seaboard. Not for the first time, however, commercial interests over-rode those of sport.
CBS insisted on a start at 4pm local time (effectively 4.20pm after the usual hoop-la) to run into their peak early-evening viewing time – even though they knew there was a 70% chance of rain for the second day in a row.
As difficult as it might have been to reschedule at late notice, there was no excuse for CBS walking away from the coverage when the rain arrived around 6pm – which they were always going to do unless Nadal and Djokovic, baseline specialists and two of the slowest players on the tour, somehow conspired to complete the final in a little over two hours.
As it happened, the weather intervened, as forecast, and CBS handed over to their weekday partner, ESPN, while switching to their own news and the riveting showbusiness revelations of Entertainment Tonight. Unlike Sunday's storm, which came and stayed, yesterday's lasted an hour or so and, after diligent squeegee work and blow-drying, Nadal and Djokovic were trading shots again by 8pm.
Players get used to disjointed matches because of weather but, from Djokovic's point of view, the stoppage, arriving with him a set down and serving at 30-30 and 4-4 in the second, seriously broke his rhythm. Still, when he grabbed that second set off Nadal, it strengthened his resolve. It was his rotten luck the guy across the net was just as stubborn.
Djokovic put it best and most simply at the end: "Right now he's the best player in the world and he absolutely deserves this title."