In part, Sunday’s U.S. Open men’s championship final offered a meditation on the importance of the tennis serve. Specifically, that too much emphasis shouldn’t be put on sheer speed.
Consider that in top seed Rafael Nadal’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 disassembling of No. 28 Kevin Anderson, Nadal routinely served as much as 20 miles per hour slower than the 6-8 Anderson. Yet Nadal didn’t allow Anderson a single break point.
In fact, Anderson never even got to deuce on Nadal’s serve until 2 hours, 26 minutes into the match, when Nadal netted a forehand on the first of his two match points. Two points later, the never-in-doubt contest was over with Nadal’s quick, two-punch serve and backhand volley.
So Nadal, the 31-year-old Spaniard, now has 16 major-tournament titles, second only to Roger Federer’s record 19. He and the 36-year-old Federer, in their dotage, thus wind up splitting the four Grand Slam events in 2017, not encouraging news to the millennials and centennials trying to grab a piece of the spotlight.
Not to mention the chances in the majors for Anderson, the South African veteran and former University of Illinois All-American who had gotten past a Slam fourth round only once in his previous 33 appearances.
“I know we’re the same age, but I feel I’ve been watching you my whole life,” Anderson said to Nadal during postmatch ceremonies.
Nadal is a three-time champion at Flushing Meadows. One of only three men (Pete Sampras, Ken Rosewall are the others) to win Slam titles in his teens, 20s and 30s, Nadal is now one of only six to win at least two majors after his 30th birthday.
“If you tell me I will be here at 31 being No. 1 in the world seven, six, 10 years ago, I will not believe you,” Nadal said. “So I will try to enjoy every day without thinking much about what happened or will happen.”
What happened Sunday was that Nadal zipped around as if on roller skates, his movements and retrieving blunting potential Anderson attacks. From his usual position deep behind his baseline, Nadal nevertheless sent ground strokes to the far reaches across the net. And when efficiency at the net was required, Nadal won 16 of 16 points.
In theory, Anderson’s serving power — he hit 132, 135, 130 and 136 miles per hour in the match’s first game — offered him some hope to cope with Nadal, who was making his 23rd appearance in a Grand Slam final, 22 more than Anderson.
But Nadal’s catlike returns turned virtually every Anderson service game into an ordeal. Anderson had to survive two break points and six deuces in the first set’s third game, two more break points and six more deuces in the fifth game.
“Rafa made it very difficult,” Anderson said. “He had a good read on my serve. And he served really well.”
By the seventh game, Anderson couldn’t escape, his own double fault, giving Nadal another break point, which Nadal cashed when Anderson hit a forehand wide.
Meanwhile, Nadal repeatedly was holding serve almost casually. Once he converted another breaker in the ninth game, all that remained was a crescendo of Nadal control, best exemplified by him allowing only seven points on his nine service games in the second set.
In the end, Anderson’s serve produced 10 aces, but also four double faults that contributed to his struggle. And while Nadal committed only 11 unforced errors, Anderson was guilty of a gaudy 40.
“Very special two weeks for me,” Nadal said. “Personally, it’s just unbelievable what happened this year.”
Acing the Majors
Rafael Nadal’s 16 Grand Slam titles are second only to Roger Federer’s 19. Breaking down his championships:
U.S. Open 3