Rafael Nadal won tennis' heavyweight title last night in a rugged exchange of heavy body blows with Novak Djokovic, the spoiler who had sent five-time champ Roger Federer packing from the U.S. Open semifinal before demanding a full effort from Nadal.
In taking the 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory, Nadal, at 24, becomes only the seventh man in history to win all four Grand Slam tournaments - Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. - during his career. And he becomes the first lefthander to win the U.S. men's title since John McEnroe in 1984.
He did so like rushing water eroding rock, applying constant friction to his opponents, dropping only a single set through seven matches, displaying his familiar baseline power mixed with a new mastery of the serve, improved backhand and better court sense.
"Amazing feeling," Nadal said. "I played my best match in the U.S. Open at the most important moment, and I'm very happy for that. For me, it's a dream. To have the Grand Slam, I never imagined to have the four Grand Slams."
Djokovic cited Nadal's "speed, accuracy and, of course, his baseline is as good as ever. He is just proving every day, each year that he's better. That's what's so frustrating. He's getting better each time you play him."
The duel had been delayed one day by rain, and interrupted for almost two hours again last night, offering physical respite to Djokovic after his draining five-set upset of Federer on Saturday night. The 23-year-old Serb, who has existed just outside the Nadal-Federer power axis for several years, had the Open's dithering weather, which included an on-court temperature drop of almost 40 degrees during the tournament's two weeks and nasty winds, turn from burden to friend.
Refreshed, Djokovic nevertheless was victim of the patiently aggressive Nadal, willing as always to play shot after shot after shot while looking for an offensive opening. Djokovic was not exactly getting pushed around, matching Nadal's athletic court coverage with scrambling gets and showing off some dandy attacking shots of his own.
Djokovic wobbled in the second set after taking a quick 4-2, 40-15 lead that he let slip to deuce. After pulling Nadal far off the court with a searing crosscourt backhand, Djokovic netted a volley that brought the crowd full force into the proceedings and tipped the scales back toward Nadal.
Chants of "Ra-fa! Ra-fa!" rose from most of the 23,771 fans, Nadal completed the service break and Djokovic's body language shouted frustration.
Nadal typically spent most of his time on the baseline, where he was able to turn defensive play into instant offense with impossibly angled crosscourt winners and screaming passing shots down the line. And he was forcing Djokovic to dangle repeatedly over the precipice of lost service games.
Nadal had 26 break-point opportunities in the match (compared with four for Djokovic), and though he converted only six, Nadal slowly but steadily was wearing down Djokovic.
To have his ninth major title, and to complete the career Grand Slam three years younger than Federer did, left Nadal feeling that he "maybe" was playing his best ever. "Maybe not," he said. "Always, when you are playing well in the right moment, you are with the confidence. I think I improve my tennis a little bit."
But the idea of catching Federer's career total of major championships "is too far," he said. "Sixteen for me is too far. It's more important to me to feel I'm a better player each year, but sometimes a better player doesn't mean you are going to win every time."