Tennis

Djokovic-Nadal showdown a joy to behold

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic reacts
Djokovic claims three major titles in 2011.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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In one of the greatest duels in the history of tennis, Novak Djokovic won his third Grand Slam title of the year Monday night, defeating Rafael Nadal by 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic

LONGEST FINALS

Since 1980

4:54 - 1988: Mats Wilander def. Ivan Lendl, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4
4:47 - 1987: Ivan Lendl def. Mats Wilander, 6-7 (9), 6-0, 7-6 (4), 6-4
4:13 - 1980: John McEnroe def. Bjorn Borg, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-7 (5), 5-7, 6-4
4:10 - 2011: Novak Djokovic def. Rafael Nadal, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1
4:06 - 2009: Juan Martin del Potro def. Roger Federer, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2

But forget the score. It tells nothing of the spectacle that 23,500 people feasted on in Arthur Ashe Stadium, as two incredible athletes produced a contest so full of the seemingly impossible that spectators had a tough time believing what we were seeing.

We talk of taking a sport to new levels, but this was elevator tennis, so quickly did the standard rise. Both men pushed and pushed each other to ever greater heights of skill, power and endurance. I wonder how many world-class athletes could have survived 4 hours and 10 minutes of this kind of competition.

Both men were forced to sprint and lunge and sprint and reach and sprint again to get to balls being hammered at them at speeds close to 100 mph. Unforced errors? Hah! Every time you have to hit a ball coming at you with this kind of spin, at these angles and with this power, an error is always more probable.

But so many rallies exceeded 20 strokes, reaching as many as 34, that the extraordinary became commonplace, and it is impossible to offer a higher accolade to these two giants of the sport.

Nadal did everything within his considerable powers to hang on to the US crown he had won against Djokovic last year. But he knew, going in, that this was a different player he would face, a player who had beaten him five times in five straight finals and who was physically stronger and far, far more confident.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic

DRAWING A BLANK

With US Open loss, Rafael Nadal remains winless against Novak Djokovic in 2011. View the photos

Nevertheless, Nadal broke to lead 2-0 in both the opening sets before having those advantages ripped from his grasp by the relentless depth and power of the Serb’s service returns and ground strokes.

The crowd, once again, was heavily pro-Nadal, but those in attendance soon had to admit that much of the tennis Djokovic was producing was worth more than a polite clap. His forehand is so much more secure and dangerous than it was 12 months ago; his ability to reach wide to his right and slam back cross-court winners proved that his service return winner on match point down against Roger Federer in the semifinal was no fluke.

To his immense credit, Nadal kept fighting and broke back for 4-4 in the second set, aided by a drop shot and finally a great forehand winner up the line. But the Serbian response was to break back immediately, forcing Nadal into error and serving out for a two-set-to-love lead.

It seemed all over when another amazing rally saw Nadal drop serve for 2-3 in the third, but a double fault and some more pounding Spanish forehands enabled the champion to level immediately at 3-3. More rallies; more impossible retrieving — on and on it went until Djokovic, up at net to reach a volley, broke for 6-5.

But with the crowd screaming for yet more heroics as the sun set over the Manhattan skyline, Nadal answered them once more, finishing off another spell-binding point with a backhand winner up the line for 15-30 and, a point later, mis-hitting a backhand that stayed in, only to see Djokovic go long on the forehand to lose his chance to serve out for the title.

2011 US Open

2011 US Open

Check out all the action from New York.

The Serb was starting to slow a fraction, and when he netted a backhand to go 0-2 down in the tie-break, Nadal saw his chance and rammed it home with a great forehand in the far corner that took him to 5-1. Djokovic defended superbly as another rally unfolded on the ninth point, but it was Nadal’s backhand winner that ended it, and when Djokovic netted a forehand, the breaker was Nadal’s by 7-3.

The match was 3 1/2 hours old, and a yellow moon was rising in the evening sky as the fourth set started. Djokovic, looking as if he wanted to shorten the points, held serve with a forehand volley on game point. He then called for the trainer and took a medical timeout for a strain in his lower back on the left side. There was some question as to whether he was allowed to take timeout when it was not his turn to serve, but apparently the rules allow it. The rule served him well.

After a lengthy massage courtside, Djokovic threw himself back into the fray and snatched away the momentum from his opponent with some more pounding forehands. Nadal, furious at having been driven back behind his baseline again, relinquished serve and was never really in the hunt from that moment on. A second break for Djokovic sealed it, and so this steely-eyed 24-year-old achieved the rare feat of winning three Grand Slams in a year. Only Don Budge and Rod Laver have won four.

Dejected, Nadal told the cheering crowd afterward, “I try my best in every moment, to the limit I try to play great tennis, but congratulations to Novak for a great year.”

Nadal, putting aside his disappointment, then spoke of 9/11 and wished the families of the victims all the best. Djokovic, wearing a New York Fire Department cap, added: “I give my compassion to the people of 9/11. We must remember how lucky we are to do something we love.”

And how lucky we are to watch them do it.

Later, Nadal refused to be drawn into any controversy over the match.

US OPEN BLOG

Recap every dramatic point and every contested call in the US Open men's final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

“We start this press conference in a bad way,” he said in answer to the first questions. “Let’s talk about the match. It’s not (the) right moment to find excuses — if he stops match then or if I was tired. I (fought) until the last point. I am happy with a lot of things, much happier than in previous matches against him. In other things, I am not happy (my serve). Six straight matches to lose; for sure, that’s painful. But I am going to work every day until that changes.”

You can be sure that Djokovic will work equally hard to maintain this remarkable dominance over one of the great players of all time. How come the change from last year?

“I’m more aggressive and I have a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major tournaments, especially when I am playing Rafa and Roger (Federer),” he said. “I am just more confident.”

Djokovic admitted that the treatment he received after the first game of the fourth set was crucial.

“I had the rib problem and they had to mobilize my back as well. Also some cramps in the leg. I felt most discomfort on the serve, so I tried to go for more precision rather than speed. I think that helped me get into the rally better because he was expecting a stronger serve and was returning short. I had to make the points very short because it was obvious he was physically fitter than me on court today. I needed to take chances, and I did.”

Asked what the difference was at this elevated level of the game where the air is so rarified, the new US Open champion answered, “I guess the winner is the one that believes in victory more than the other.”

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