It’s official. Rafael Nadal has found the key to Novak Djokovic and in doing so, the Spaniard defeated his nemesis in the US Open final on Monday 6-2 3-6 6-4 6-1. The scores are misleadingly one-sided. After all, when the World No 1 and 2 meet in a Grand Slam final, there is much more to the story than the figures on the scoreboard.
Even before the match began, statistic pundits had done their math. Nadal was coming into the final with a record of 59 wins to a meager 3 losses in 2013, but more importantly, a 21-0 winning streak on hard court. Not even the biggest Rafa fan had anticipated such a dominant run after his seven-month sabbatical and a troublesome left knee that was expected to suffer at the unrelenting turf of New York. Djokovic, on the other hand, had had a see-saw tournament with some near-perfect wins and a five-set semi-final tussle with Stanislas Wawrinka that saw him play mediocre and spectacular tennis, all in one day.
The two best players in the world had their own points to prove on Monday. Apart from the last Grand Slam of the year, there were bragging rights at stake in a bitter rivalry that has now touched 37 matches and some very raw nerves. Nobody dared guarantee a result for the final but everyone had their money placed on one thing – the match would be another nerve-wrecking, dehydrating, gut-clenching marathon that would cost tennis fans around the globe their fingernails. It did not disappoint.
The first few games of the opening set were tricky as both players gauged the windy conditions at Arthur Ashes stadium, which soon filled up to its 23,000 capacity. Hollywood celebrities, too, came in numbers as every little point was cheered on by an animated NY crowd. Rafael Nadal drew first blood in the third game when he broke Djokovic with his forehand delivering some punch early on. As the Queen of Spain and James Bond himself (Sir Sean Connery) watched from the stands, the Mallorcan Monster swiftly gobbled down another break in the seventh game, much to the frustration of the Serb who was left staring at his box for clues. Flaunting a custom-made $6,90,000 watch, Nadal was in no mood to waste any time. With the score at 5-2, he strolled past Djoker with the first set in tow.
Nadal 6-2 Djokovic
The Serb’s 14 unforced errors in the first set did not help his cause. His frustration was evident, but what was more surprising was his jammed feet and a lack of will to chase down the good shots as he watched balls go by.The pattern continued in the first few games of the second set as Nadal played aggressive tennis, with a few adaptations for Djoker’s game. With more sliced backhands coming into play, his feared forehand took a backseat and it seemed to work, for a while. But things turned around, as they often do between these two, in the sixth game of the set when Djoker capitalized on a break point. He outlasted Nadal in the longest rally of the match, lasting 54 shots, to take a decisive step ahead. With arms raised in triumph and the grin making its first appearance, you knew the World No 1 had just arrived to the party. The crowd was also behind the underdog, if I may call him that.
But the euphoria did not last long as Rafa broke back in the very next game, thanks to a double fault giving him a sneak in. Nadal 3-4 Djokovic. Just when the momentum seemed to tilt Rafa’s way again, another long rally ended with some horrific shot selection. The Spaniard chose a surprise drop shot that backfired and allowed the Serb a second break in the set. Djoker would now serve for the set at 5-3. This was new territory to Nadal, who had been broken just once in the tournament (in the semis to Gasquet) before the final. Djokovic, who was oscillating between aces and inexplicable unforced errors, came out of his shell and finished the set clinically.
Nadal 3-6 Djokovic
With one set apiece, and the momentum on his side, Djoker started off the third set in the best way possible- breaking Nadal in the very first game. With a few nerve-wrecking holds of serve, Nadal somehow held on against a confident aggressive Djokovic, who had found his forehand winners. It paid off as the No 2 seed found a break in the sixth game to balance the match at 3-3. As the third set looked to go to a tie-breaker at 4-4, Rafa lost his footing (literally) and fell into a hole at 0-40, facing a triple break point and a very possible loss of another set. Djokovic looked to deliver the fatal blow. Just when you thought you had seen everything the 12-Grand-Slam winning champion could conjure up, Nadal pulled a T-rex out of the hat! Winning long rallies and producing his first ace (and his fastest serve so far) of the match at the most opportune time, he did what he does best- survive the impossible. And with a massive smash at the net, he made a resonating statement – he wouldn’t go down so easily. Nadal 5-4 Djokovic.
The game turned out to be the turning point of the match as Nadal virtually stole the next game and the set from under the No 1 seed’s nose. A magical rally that ended with a volley winner off the Spaniard’s racquet got the crowd into a frenzy. They now backed the magician. Nadal went from the brink of losing the set to winning it when Djoker landed one long. Even Rafa’s usually calm girlfriend and team could not help but jump up in the box while the Spaniard pumped his fists into the ground. The impossible had just happened.
Nadal 6-4 Djokovic
The crowd expected Djoker to pull things back in the fourth set. But the Serb hadn’t brought his best game on the day. Nadal broke in the second game to lead 2-0. Three games later, Rafa was still one break up but the scoreboard looked a lot worse than it was, at 4-1. The Serb was running out of games to effect another twist in the tale. And just then, he seemed to give up. Rafa clinched another decisive break to go up 5-1 and served for the championship. The last game was a formal sealing of the deal as the crowd erupted and the Spaniard embraced the court.
Nadal 6-1 Djokovic
The match might not have lasted five sets but with the numerous dramatic twists and turns, it was nothing short of an emotional marathon for the players and fans alike. At the end, Nadal greeted Djokovic at the net like a boxer, too exhausted to throw another punch, leaning on him for support, and then went on to lie face down on the court he had just conquered.