Tuesday, September 10, 2013

U.S. Open Final: The Man from Mallorca

Think back, to just one year ago: Novak Djokovic was the definitive #1-ranked player in the world, Roger Federer had come to New York as the reigning Wimbledon champion, Gold Medalist Andy Murray was hoping to carry over his Olympic success to a grand slam title and Rafael Nadal's aching knees were once again raising questions about the future of his career and whether or not his body would enable him to return to his past heights.

My, how things can change in twelve months.

As we stand here in September 2013, at the conclusion of the U.S. Open, and take perspective of the current ATP landscape, nearly all the important pieces have been moved around the chess board since this time a year ago. Djokovic is still ranked #1, but it seems only a temporary condition. The Serb has had a great season, but it's paled in comparison to his combined 2011-12 campaigns. It's Federer, not his longtime friendly rival, who is the respected great whose future looks decidedly cloudy following a season that has included a handful of losses to players with whom he used to wipe the court (Mr. Robrebo, meet the Player Formerly Known as Fed?), as well as questions about his motivation, confidence (as a player ranked OUTSIDE the Top 5!) and possibly aching back. Meanwhile, Murray has won two slam crowns and turned the Big 3 into a Big 4... or maybe just replaced the Swiss with a Scot in the equation. Oh, yeah, and Nadal is once again the dominant player in the world, and not just on clay, either. On hard court, as well. With Nadal's claiming of his second U.S. Open crown, and thirteenth career slam, with a 6-2/3-6/6-4/6-1 victory in a pre-scheduled Monday final versus Djokovic at Flushing Meadows, the Spaniard has won ten titles on the season, including two slams, and is undefeated on hard courts.

Even with Nadal's history of coming back from a layoff in fine form (winning three slams in '10 after taking time off with knee issues the previous season), it would have been hard to imagine before seeing it this season with our own eyes that he could come back BETTER than he'd ever been before. But that's just what he's been in 2013. He came into this Open as nearly as heavy a favorite in NYC as he has been in past seasons in Paris, and he never once disappointed over the past two weeks.

As expected, Djokovic gave Nadal his sternest test at this Open in the men's championship decider, but it still wasn't nearly enough to divert the man from Mallorca from his appointed rounds, moving him to within one Australian Open crown of becoming the first man in the Open era to complete a second Career Grand Slam by winning at least two titles at all four majors (Federer remains one Roland Garros title from accomplishing the same feat). Hmmm, maybe everyone was more than a bit hasty when they confined the "Greatest of All-Time" discussion to players named Federer and Laver? Previously, Rafa's name was thrown in, even with his Career Grand Slam, simply because of his overall career of Federer, who'd only recently been elevated to "tennis deity" status. But with his bludgeoning (of opponents in his) '13 return to action after a seven-month layoff, Nadal has more than elbowed his way into the legitimate, full-blown discussion. And when you go ahead and pencil in the 2014 Roland Garros crown into Rafa's career win column, you're forced to look around and see where the Spaniard might be able to grab at least three more slam crowns that would enable him to catch and possibly surpass Federer on the all-time list.

And it's not all that hard to find them... if he even NEEDS to "search" for them to get to 17 or 18, that is. After all, Nadal might be able to put up the number simply by maintaining his dominance in Paris for a few more years. But that's why he needs another hard court slam (and a third on grass couldn't hurt, either) to make his case, so that second Aussie Open crown could ultimately be what might punch his ticket to all-time greatness.

Nadal faced off with Djokovic in this Open's final match, the sixth slam championship decided between the two (second only to Federer/Nadal's eight), and their thirty-seventh overall meeting, the most in any head-to-head ATP series in the Open era. The Nadal-Djokovic match-up is renowned for long, slugging rallies, of which there were many tonight, including one that lasted 54 strokes, so anytime the two meet in a slam it's best to carve out enough time to be able to follow a match for up to four (or five?) hours. While the contrast of the grace-vs.-grit of the Federer/Nadal series is much more intriguing and enticing pairing, that of the Spaniard with the Serb is a case of fighter-vs.-fighter that is a sometimes-repetitive contest, though one with more inherent drama and intensity than a similar one between either two men and, say, an oft-grinding player such as Murray. It's a powerful match-up, though far from the sort that will ever be as fondly remembered as Federer/Nadal, no matter how big of an edge Rafa may ultimately have there, or how many slam titles Djokovic eventually puts up next to Rafa's.

In New York tonight, Nadal handled the pressure presented by the Serb by matching his intensity at every turn. Rafa got an early break in the 1st set and rode it to a routine 6-2 win. After having only been broken once in 80+ service games, Nadal had to stave off break points early in the second set, then saw Djokovic, the best returner in the world, break him for 4-2, converting break point by winning that 54-stroke rally. Nadal broke back, but then dropped his serve a second straight time, allowing Djokovic to serve out the 2nd set at 6-3, and then a third to begin the 3rd set.

Djokovic led 2-0 in the 3rd, and held break point for a double-break advantage. But he didn't get it, then saw Nadal break back, save three more break points and hold for 5-4 and then get a break to take the set at 6-4. In the 4th, Rafa jumped on Djokovic early, breaking him in the second game and racing to a 6-1 win to secure his second U.S. Open title.

Nadal leaves this Open just as he entered it -- with a winning career mark against every man in the draw he'd ever faced in his career. A career in which he's bested Federer (17 slams), and Djokovic (6), as well as Murray (2), Juan Martin del Potro (1) and any other player willing to be placed in front of him. At this point, the man from Mallorca's only real battle remains with history... and the ghosts of the all-time greats.

And as long as his body continues to hold together, he might just have a leg up on them, too.

Of course, who knows where things will stand a year from now. Djokovic could be back to his 2011-and-first-half-of-2012 level of dominance in the clutch, while Murray may or may not have recovered from his "Wimbledon hangover," which made his hard court summer and U.S. Open title defense nearly an afterthought the last few months. Federer, for his part, could just transform into a one-more-shot-at-glory copy of Pete Sampras, who pulled one final slam title out of the racket bag in New York after, much like Federer, looking for most of the previous year like a great player who would simply never again experience a moment of slam brilliance. And while Nadal came back in '13 the picture of health, refreshed and reinvigorated, who's to say that after a year of fully-scheduled play that Rafa won't once again be in the position of needing to rest his knees in order to prevent endangering his career? Everything could soon be re-arranged all over again.

But one thing we do know is that the leading story on the ATP isn't likely to involve anyone OTHER than those same four men. It'll just be a matter of where each of them re-positions himself on the game board.

...Nadal's win means that 32 of the last 35 slams have been won by either him, Federer or Djokovic. If you throw Murray into the mix, it's 34 of 35.

#2 Rafael Nadal/ESP def. #1 Novak Djokovic/SRB 6-2/3-6/6-4/6-1

#4 Paes/Stepanek (IND/CZE) def. #2 Peya/Soares (AUT/BRA) 6-1/6-3

#7 Hlavackova/Mirnyi (CZE/BLR) def. Spears/S.Gonzalez (USA/MEX) 7-6/6-3

#4 Borna Coric/CRO def. Thanasi Kokkinakis/AUS 3-6/6-3/6-1

Majchrzak/Redlicki (POR/USA) def. Halys/Silva (FRA/POR) 6-3/6-4

#2 Stephane Houdet/FRA def. #1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN 6-2/6-4

Jeremiasz/Scheffers (FRA/NED) def. Fernandez/Gerard (ARG/BEL) 6-0/4-6/6-3

17...Roger Federer *
14...Pete Sampras
12...Roy Emerson
11...Bjorn Borg
11...Rod Laver
10...Bill Tilden
* - active

24...Roger Federer, SUI (17-7)
18...RAFAEL NADAL, ESP (13-5)
7...Andy Murray, GBR (2-5)
4...Lleyton Hewitt, AUS (2-2)
24...Roger Federer *
19...Ivan Lendl
18...Pete Sampras
17...Rod Laver
16...Bjorn Borg
16...Ken Rosewall
* - active

6...Roger Federer (5-1)
3...RAFAEL NADAL (2-1)
2...Lleyton Hewitt (1-1)
2...Andy Murray (1-1)
1...Juan Martin del Potro (1-0)

22...Bob Bryan, USA (0/22)
18...Mike Bryan, USA (0/17)
17...Roger Federer, SUI (17/0)
14...LEANDER PAES, IND (0/14)
13...RAFAEL NADAL, ESP (13/0)
12...Mahesh Bhupathi, IND (0/12)

8...vs. Roger Federer (6-2)
6...vs. NOVAK DJOKOVIC (3-3)
1...vs. Tomas Berdych (1-0)
1...vs. David Ferrer (1-0)
1...vs. Mariano Puerta (1-0)
1...vs. Robin Soderling (1-0)

109...Jimmy Connors
94...Ivan Lendl
77...Roger Federer *
77...John McEnroe
64...Pete Sampras
62...Bjorn Borg
62...Guillermo Vilas
60...Andre Agassi
57...Ilie Nastase
* - active

All for now.

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