For a moment, Rafael Nadal was somewhere he never usually goes.
Deep into the third set of Monday’s U.S. Open men’s final, a heavy Novak Djokovic forehand pushed Nadal back behind the baseline, where he tripped over his own feet and tumbled to the ground, seemingly in slow motion.
In that instant, the fall seemed symbolic, a turning point. Nadal promptly faced triple-break point and the prospect of Djokovic taking a two-sets-to-one lead. Point by point, Nadal dug himself out of the hole. An ace — his only one in the match — got the game to deuce. Four points later, he had a most improbable hold. Six points after that, he’d broken Djokovic to take the third set 6-4.
Nadal’s body hunched over, and he pumped his fist. Vamos! he roared.
Turning point, indeed.
Nadal broke Djokovic twice in the fourth set and held on for a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win. It is the second U.S. Open win of Nadal’s career and his 13th career Grand Slam championship.
Monday’s win also continues a spectacular season for Nadal. He has won 10 titles; the U.S. Open crown runs his record to 22-0 on hardcourts and 60-3 on the season. This has all come after a seven-month hiatus from the sport (due to the knee issues), prompting Nadal to call this the “most emotional season of my career.”
“With seven months, I am sure that I will not forget how to play tennis,” Nadal said. “But at the end, the most important thing and the most difficult thing is be healthy. If you are healthy, if you have been in the top positions (in the sport) for nine years already or eight years and you stop for seven months, why you will not have the chance to be back there? … If you are healthy, if you keep playing … with excitement and passion for the game, why you will not have the chance to be there?”
As expected, the match felt more like a heavyweight fight than a tennis match. The two had faced off 36 times before, each quite familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the other, each prepared for the grueling physical challenge that awaited Monday night.
They didn’t disappoint.
“If both of us are playing well, it’s very difficult (for) somebody to win the match easy,” Nadal said. “Between Novak and me, every point is fighting, every point is a long rally, every point is more strategy. This is very tough.”
Rallies routinely lasted 10 or 20 shots. One — the first time Djokovic broke Nadal, in the second set — went 54 shots. It, rightfully, earned a standing ovation from the Arthur Ashe stadium crowd.
The match teetered back and forth, momentum changing ever-so-slightly and ever-so-frequently throughout the four sets. Nadal won the first set easily in 42 minutes, then watched Djokovic elevate his game to match him. In the second set, Djokovic relied on his best weapon — his return — to pressure Nadal, breaking the Spaniard twice in the process. Entering Monday, Nadal had been broken just once throughout the tournament. Nadal said afterward that since Djokovic has the best return in the game, he expected his serve to be broken more than once.
Djokovic’s combination of stellar defense and breathtaking groundstrokes earned him an early break in the third set and what appeared, briefly, to be control of the match. At the time of Nadal’s fall, Djokovic was just a couple of points away from taking the set. Nadal snatched it from his grip, despite hitting just six winners the entire set, to Djokovic’s 17.
“When Novak plays that level, I am not sure if (any)body can stop him,” Nadal said. “I tried to be there, keep fighting for every ball, and tried to be focused in every moment and tried to wait for my moment.
“I will have my chance, then (I) can convert or not. I did, but even then, I had that love-40 — that was really, really amazing.”
Djokovic had another word for the sequence at the end of the third set: disappointing.
“I was the one who was dictating the play,” he said. “But it’s all my fault, you know. I made some unforced errors in the crucial moments with forehands and dropped the serve twice when I should not have. You know, next thing you know, all of a sudden it’s two sets to one for him, then he started playing much, much better after that, and, you know, I obviously could not recover.”
Djokovic did unravel quickly. He was broken in his first service game in the fourth set and again later, allowing Nadal a comfortable cushion to serve out the match. After the final point, Nadal collapsed — this time, voluntarily — to the ground in celebration.
“He’s definitely one of the best players ever to play the game,” Djokovic said. “I have played, especially against Rafa on different surfaces and different occasions, points like this where you just feel that there is the last drop of energy that you need to use in order to win the point. Sometimes I (have won) those points, sometimes him.
“It’s what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit. That’s the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end.”