Nadal in elite Career Slam company

Rafael Nadal joins tennis royalty with U.S. Open win

And so the Black Knight, forced to wait until darkness fell over Flushing Meadows, became the seventh player in the history of the game to achieve the near impossible — win all four of the Grand Slam championships.

Rafael Nadal, clad totally in black through much of this wind-blown and ultimately rain affected U.S. Open, defeated the gallant Serb, Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 at 10:03 p.m. on Monday night.

Just 14 months after his great rival Roger Federer joined one of sport's most exclusive clubs, Nadal's name can now go alongside the Englishman Fred Perry; Don Budge, the pre-World War II American champion; two Australians, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson; Andre Agassi and Federer to make it a magnificent seven who now stand alone at the pinnacle of the tennis record books.

Budge and Laver are especially magnificent in that they managed to win all four in one calendar year. But, to balance that achievement against those of Agassi, Federer and Nadal, all but Roland Garros of the four Slams were played on grass in the early years. Today's players have to face a greater examination of their skills with the U.S. Open and Australian Open played on different types of hard court.

For Nadal to have recovered from a slow start to the year by winning the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on three different surfaces in a time span of less than four months is an extraordinary and unique achievement. Federer came close last year when he won his first French, then Wimbledon and reached the final here before losing to Juan Martin del Potro.

But for Nadal, considered for so long to be a defensive player best suited to clay, to achieve this is truly remarkable and it has set him off in ever closer pursuit of Federer and his 16 Grand Slam titles. Rafa now has nine but he is 24 and Roger 29. If his knees hold up and the ambition still burns bright — how could it not with this most competitive of athletes? — everything is now possible for the man from Mallorca.

Mats Wilander, the Swede who only missed out on Wimbledon when he won three Slams in 1988, expressed amazement at Nadal's achievement.

"To lose only six sets in winning those three titles? That has to be one of the greatest feats ever." Wilander shook his head. "He's just turned himself into this incredible athlete and you know the scary thing? There is room for improvement. He could still flatten out the forehand on occasion, still get in to volley a bit more — and already the guys seem incapable of winning sets off him. What's happening?"

Djokovic, a sporting and deservedly acclaimed runner up, has had a closer look than Wilander and is also in awe.

"The frustrating thing is that he's getting better each time you play him. He's so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has improved his serve drastically. This is one of those matches where the opponent plays better than you and you just have to congratulate him and tell him, ‘You're better.' That's it."

The man himself was finding it difficult to grasp.

"It's an unbelievable feeling because I worked my whole life, in all difficult moments to be here but I never imagined I would have the four Grand Slams," Nadal said.

And then he spelled out the difficulties: "To win here at the U.S. Open is, for me, the most difficult tournament to play, the most difficult conditions to adapt to, to adjust my game on this court, for the balls, for everything, no? But I think the serve made the big difference for me in this tournament."

Again he brushed aside comparisons with Federer.

"I think to talk about whether I am better or worse than Roger is stupid because the titles say he is much better than me, so that's true at the moment. I think it will be true all my life."

Don't bet on that.

The official attendance was given as 23,700 which merely reflected the original number of tickets sold for Sunday. But, with Labor Day gone, it said something for people's enthusiasm that so many managed to avoid their labors and pack Arthur Ashe Stadium to create the kind of atmosphere one would want for a final. It looked to me as if there were very nearly 20,000 there and, significantly for the future of the game, they were a very young crowd. At a guess, I would say the vast majority were 40 or under and they were not passive observers.

When Djokovic worked his way into the match by breaking Nadal for a 3-1 lead in the second set, a young blonde lady in front of me leapt to her feet, did a little wiggle, flung her arms around her boyfriend and then sat there with fingers crossed while Nole, as his fans call him, served his way through the next game to lead 4-1.

With the unexpected benefit of a day to recover following his exhausting victory over Federer on Saturday, Djokovic did not seem to suffer physically from the 3-hour, 43-minute duel and insisted afterwards that he was feeling good on court. It showed in the way he forced Nadal onto the back foot with his mighty forehand during that purple patch in the second set.

But the Spaniard never goes away. He'll stand there, taking the body blows, and then come back at you with whirring top spin forehands and ridiculous gets when pushed way out of court on his backhand side.

The Spanish left-hander got the break back in the seventh game, but to Novak's immense credit he broke again to grab it 7-5. Suddenly Nadal had lost a set for the first time in the championship, but he shrugged it off, broke in the third game of the third and then gave a masterful demonstration of how to serve out for a set — hitting the line three times in succession from 15-30 down with an ace and two unreturnable deliveries.

So the die was cast and, after the final Djokovic forehand flew wide and Nadal had thrown himself to the ground, sobbing in delight and relief, he was to be found with a grin as wide as the East River, surrounded by coach Uncle Toni and about 20 Spanish friends, including Princess Cristina of Spain, out in the players' garden. A chill had descended but his friends were aglow with champagne and the hugely popular Rafa was feeling nothing but the intense pleasure of victory.

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