So another US Open is over, with what was nearly a classic final. This time in a display of brutal and sustained hitting from the back of the court Nadal prevailed in four sets.
This represents one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis history. Following an early exit at Wimbledon, followed by persistent knee problems, Nadal was out for the rest of the year and only returned in February. He picked his tournaments carefully, playing on clay in South America and Mexico before his first tournament on hard courts in Indian Wells – which may have been ominous for his peers – winning and beating Federer, Berdych and Del Potro in the process.
He has been dominant on clay over the years, though this year it has been on hard courts that he has been undefeated, after winning four out of five clay court tournaments in the summer he has gone on to win the last three on hard courts.
What has also been hugely impressive has been his ability to win when his opponent is playing better. In Cincinnati, prior to the Flushing Meadow, Nadal came up against a resurgent Federer, who despite his earlier woes, played some of his best tennis of the year taking a tight first set and playing well in the second. Nadal, who is a master of the clinch, turned it around in four games at the end of the second and beginning of the third, holding on to win. There was something similar in yesterday’s final. While Nadal dominated the first set and early part of the second, Djokovic then started to step in and take control, winning the second set and going a break up in the third.
In the first set it was Nadal, who it seemed had taken a leaf out of Federer’s book, stepping in and taking good length balls off the bounce to deny Djokovic time. Yet in the second and third the roles were reversed, with Nadal being pushed back. A strategy that Federer has employed against both in his efforts to get back to the top in the last couple of years is now being used by them, illustrating the need to continue adapting and improving.
At this level the margins are slim and, with such brutal hitting and a consistently high standard of tennis, picking the pinch points is a rare skill. At a set and a break down, it was Rafa who, as so often in his career, was able to pick the critical points, breaking back and then taking the crucial third set. From then, with an early break in the fourth it seemed that Djokovic lost that edge that had kept him competitive through the second and third sets and Rafa ran out a 6-1 winner.
John McEnroe observed of Nadal: “His will to win – I have never seen anything like it”. Rafa, is both relentless, which puts extraordinary pressure on his opponents, and has this extraordinary ability to be able to pick the key moments and exploit them.