By Howard Fendrich
NEW YORK: Hard to believe this is the same Rafael Nadal who was home during the U.S. Open a year ago, nursing a bad left knee.
Hard to believe this is the guy sent packing in the first round of Wimbledon in June, losing against someone ranked 135th.
Looking fit as can be and maybe even better than ever, the No. 2-ranked Nadal pulled away from No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 on Monday in a taut, tense U.S. Open final for his 13th Grand Slam title.
“Very, very emotional, no?” Nadal said during the on-court trophy presentation. “Probably only my team knows how much [this] means for me.”
They started in sunlight and finished at night, a 3-hour, 21-minute miniseries of cliffhangers and plot twists and a pair of protagonists who inspired standing ovations in the middle of games.
“Probably nobody brings my game to the limit like Novak,” said Nadal, who collected $3.6 million in prize money, including a $1 million bonus for results during the North American hard-court circuit.
There was no quit in either of them, during points that lasted 15, 25, even more than 50 strokes. Those rallies went so long, rarely over when they appeared to be, and spectators often shouted out during the course of play, prompting Nadal to complain to the chair umpire.
This was their 37th match against each other, the most between any two men in the Open era, and Nadal has won 22. It also was their third head-to-head U.S. Open final in the last four years. Nadal beat Djokovic for the 2010 title, and Djokovic won their rematch in 2011.
They know each other’s games so well, and play such similar hustle-to-every-ball styles, but in the end, it was Nadal who was superior.
“He was too good. He definitely deserved to win this match today and this trophy,” Djokovic said. “Obviously disappointing to lose a match like this.”
Nadal improved to 22-0 on hard courts and 60-3 overall in 2013 with nine titles, including at the French Open, which made him the first man with at least one Grand Slam trophy in nine consecutive seasons. The 27-year-old Spaniard’s total of 13 major championships ranks third in the history of men’s tennis, behind only Roger Federer’s 17 and Pete Sampras’ 14.
“Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible,” said Djokovic, who owns six himself. “Whatever he achieved so far in his career, everybody should respect, no question about it.”
Nadal no longer wears the strips of white tape he once did to bolster his left knee, and the way he covered the court against Djokovic — switching from defense to offense in a blink — proved that while he says he still feels pain in that leg, he definitely does not have problems moving around.
These are the same two who played the longest Grand Slam final in history, a nearly six-hour struggle that left both needing chairs during the ceremony after Djokovic’s victory at the 2012 Australian Open.
This time, when it ended with a forehand into the net by Djokovic, Nadal dropped to his back on the court, saluted by an Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included the Queen of Spain.
Nadal was relentless from shot to shot, yes, and from point to point, too, but what might have been most impressive was the way he stayed steady when Djokovic recovered from a rough start and began asserting himself.
At the outset, Djokovic was his own worst enemy on many points, a touch or two off the mark. Nadal claimed 12 of the last 14 points in the first set, with Djokovic looking almost bored.
The world saw this sort of listless, lackluster Djokovic two months ago in the final at Wimbledon, where Nadal had exited a Grand Slam tournament in the opening round for the only time in his career. That time, Djokovic went through a difficult semifinal — at 4:43, the longest in Wimbledon history — and barely put up much resistance in a straight-set loss to Andy Murray two days later.
In New York, Djokovic was coming off another four-hour semifinal victory, and the key stat in the first set Monday was that he made 14 unforced errors, 10 more than Nadal.
“It’s what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit,” Djokovic said. “That’s the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end.”