New York: Now owner of a career Grand Slam at age 24, champion at three consecutive major tournaments and nine overall, Rafael Nadal is now chasing something else: the chance to become the greatest tennis player in history.
Approaching perfection for stretches, he played more than 40 points in a row without making an unforced error, Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in a US Open final Monday that was filled with fantastic shotmaking by both men and interrupted by a thunderstorm a day after it was postponed by rain.
“For the first time in my career, I played a very, very good match in this tournament,” said Nadal, who never had been past the semifinals at Flushing Meadows. “That’s my feeling, no? I played my best match in the US Open at the most important moment.”
The Spaniard is already more than halfway to Federer’s career record of 16 Grand Slam titles, and already past Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi or Ivan Lendl.
Nadal said “talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid, because the titles say he’s much better than me.”
Djokovic had no such hesitation.
“He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever,” said Djokovic, who lost the 2007 US Open final to Federer, but upset him in Saturday’s semifinals. “(Nadal is) playing the best tennis that I’ve ever seen him play on hard courts. He has improved his serve drastically, the speed, the accuracy. And, of course, his baseline (game) is as good as ever.”
Nadal is a year younger than Federer was when he got to No. 9, and about 3 1/2 years younger than Federer was when he completed his career Grand Slam at the 2009 French Open. Nadal is the seventh man in history with at least one title from each of tennis’ four most important tournaments.
Bjorn Borg was the only other man to have nine major championships by 24.
“It’s too far; 16, for me, is too far to think about right now,” Nadal said, with his typical humility. “My goal, all my life, was the same: keep improving.”
His major improvement in this tournament came from his serve, thanks to a change in his grip. The added pace helps him earn some easy points, important given the way he hustles so much and hits so hard. He won 106 of 111 service games in the tournament.
Nadal is first left-hander to win the US Open since John McEnroe in 1984, and the first Spaniard since Manuel Orantes in 1975.
The man from Mallorca burst onto the scene as the so-called King of Clay, compiling a record 81-match winning streak on that surface and starting his French Open career 31-0. His five titles at Roland Garros have earned him accolades as the best clay-court player in history, but now he has become so much more.
He won on the grass at Wimbledon in 2007, edging Federer 9-7 in the fifth set as darkness descended, then again this year. He won on the hard courts at the Australian Open in 2009, again besting Federer in five sets.
All that was left was the US Open. After complaining of fatigue in 2008, coming off his gold medal from the Beijing Olympics, then dealing with bad knees and a torn abdominal muscle in 2009, he set out to make this trip different.
He curtailed his schedule after Wimbledon, getting treatment on his knees and skipping the Davis Cup quarterfinals. It seemed to work.
“Nadal ... is just proving each day, each year, that he’s getting better. That’s what’s so frustrating, a little bit. He’s getting better each time you play him,” Djokovic said. “He’s so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever.”
Nadal stretched his Grand Slam winning streak to 21 matches by adding the US Open to his titles at the French Open in June, then Wimbledon in July. No man had won those three tournaments in the same year since Rod Laver won a true Grand Slam in 1969. Now Nadal heads to the Australian Open in January with a chance to claim a Rafa Slam of four consecutive major championships, something that also hasn’t been done since Laver.
He had only had one blip all tournament: the second set of the final when he fell behind 3-1 by making four mistakes, including a double-fault, to get broken at love.
When Nadal pushed a backhand long to close a 19-shot point, 2008 Australian Open champion Djokovic screamed, “Come on!” It was part of a run of 11 consecutive points for the Serb, who went ahead 4-1.
As quickly as Nadal lost his way, however, he gathered himself, to break back to 4-4, when there was a two-hour rain delay.
After they resumed, Djokovic ended up taking the set, the only one Nadal lost all tournament. He came that close to being the first man in a half-century to win this tournament without dropping a set.
Nadal was back to his relentless best in the third and fourth, hitting shots so well that Djokovic was moved to applaud on occasion. The Spaniard broke for 2-1 leads in each of those last two sets.
When Djokovic hit a forehand wide to end it second later, Nadal fell backward onto the court with a shout. He rolled onto his front and placed his forehead on his arms, savoring the moment.
Amid the celebration, mentor Toni Nadal was asked where his nephew stands in the tennis pantheon.
“The best of all time: Federer, Borg, Laver. They’re the best. Rafael is very far away from those guys. Rafael is a good player. He’s a very good player,” Uncle Toni said. “But I don’t know if he’s part of that group.”
Could he be, one day?
“I don’t know,” came the reply. “Ask me in five or six years, and maybe I can say.”
By then, if not sooner, maybe the rest of the world can, too.