Beyond the combatants themselves, swashbuckling Rafael Nadal and mutineer Novak Djokovic, last night's U.S. Open men's final provided tennis wonks with the usual esoteric material for studying - guessing? - some inside source of a champion's edge.
Might Nadal at last have advanced to his first U.S. final by translating his topspin-reliant game, so suited to clay, to the Flushing Meadows hard courts? Did the official tournament ball, which Nadal described as "very soft" and "not getting a lot of topspin," add power to his noticeably effective serve even as it muted the trampoline effect of his topspin?
And what about the racket strings that became a topic of discussion at this year's French Open? Nadal now plays with a product by Babolat called RPM Blast strings, which the company's website contends can maximize spin and feel because of "cross-linked silicone" and "high density co-polyester." (Besides Nadal, both women's finalists at Roland Garros played with Babolat's black strings this year.)
Apparently nothing bothered Nadal as he beat Djokovic in four sets to win his first U.S. Open title.
Djokovic, whose semifinal upset of five-time champ Roger Federer had sent the much-anticipated Nadal-Federer final up in flames, entered the match fully aware that all seven of his career wins against Nadal - he had lost 14 times - were on hard courts. And that none of Nadal's tour-leading five tournament victories in 2010 had come on hard court.
But Djokovic also knew it was old news to say Nadal had not figured out how to win on faster surfaces. Nadal's previous eight titles in Grand Slam events include the 2008 Australian Open (though Melbourne's hard courts are slower than Flushing Meadows') and that two Nadal championships in the past three years on Wimbledon's lightning-quick grass have pretty much put the "clay-court specialist" title to rest.
"He has improved so much in the last couple of years on grass," Djokovic said. "I mean, winning two Wimbledons is just amazing . . . "
Nadal, meanwhile, cited the use of the Wilson ball as one of his significant adjustment challenges at the Open. "For me," he said, "the ball is softer than the rest of the balls on tour. It is the ball that is getting less topspin. The ball stays lower" and therefore more in the wheelhouse of opponents, particularly on the backhand.
"But I won [the 2008] Olympics with this ball," Nadal said. "Seems like it's not impossible for me to play with this ball, no? But if I have to say something for me to change to play this tournament, it's going to be the ball. I already won on hard, so that's not new for me to win on this surface. The conditions in every tournament are different, and I need to have more options to do to try to win against difficult players like today."
Less technologically pertinent - and probably more to the point - is the fact that Nadal had never arrived at Flushing Meadows as fresh and healthy as he did this year.
"I think," he said, "in 2008 I was ready - maybe I was ready - to do something very important here. But mentally I was destroyed in that moment of the season, without energy" after a playing grind that included the Beijing Olympics.
Then there was Djokovic, who proved at the 2008 Australian that he is worthy of being in the championship conversation, working to channel his emotions so that his solid technique would show through. Not to mention his soaring confidence after upsetting Federer.
Soft tennis balls, hard courts and gripping strings aside, Nadal and Djokovic still are highly tuned athletes at the top of their game. And that was plenty to guarantee an entertaining final.