NEW YORK – The reign’s in Spain now, falling mightily and mainly on the crowned head of Roundhouse Rafa.
Spain, of course, has a king, Juan Carlos I, with a palace in Madrid. A good fellow, we’re told. But the real monarch today is young Rafa I, whose roundhouse knockout punches on a tennis court are massive left hooks that leave no doubt of his being No. 1 in his world-circling profession.
This has been Rafael Nadal’s eighth campaign assaulting the United States, none of them successful until he captured Monday’s day-night double header by matching — then overcoming the shotmaking magic of Novak Djokovic, the man who removed the former ruler, Roger Federer, from the US Open.
A last errant forehand, a splendid sight to Nadal, finished off Djokovic in the fourth set, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, and drew the final vocal explosions from a gathering of about 23,771 (712,976 over the two weeks) who had been treated to memorable displays of sharpshooting throughout 3 hours 43 minutes.
In a rain-provoked disjointed final, they paused for too much moisture, and a sitdown of an hour and forty-eight minutes with Nadal leading, 6-4, 4-4, 30-all, Djokovic serving. They returned to the court for the remaining time.
Perhaps it was rain from Serbia that enabled Djokovic to play so handsomely against Nadal. That downpour washed out Sunday, giving Novak an unexpected day’s rest after his monumental five set victory over five-time champ Federer, during which he rescued two match points.
But Nadal wasn’t going to be held back by anything or anybody. He hungered for the US title he’d never come close to seizing, and to complete an extremely rare career Grand Slam – possession of each of the four majors. Joining Don Budge, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi and Federer, Rafa becomes the seventh in the exclusive society, adding the US to five French, two Wimbledon and one Australian. And collecting a cool, $1,7 million.
Wearing black, trimmed in chartreuse, looking like the Plague in green sneakers, Nadal has shorter hair but the ability to play ever longer, double digit rallies until his foes keel over. Nevertheless Djokovic kept up with him most of the time, their baseline duels perhaps the most stunning and imaginative ever seen in Arthur Ashe Stadium. No, neither was another Federer for smoothness and cool. There’s only one Roger. Still, the sizzling spins, speeds and angles, the most incredibly low slices from Nadal tested their legs and determination. A-plus in both categories.
But Rafa was always a menacing presence, never letting Djokovic get comfortable. He would set traps – 26 break points – and the Serb would squirm out of reach, saving 20 of them. Novak was permitted to look at only four breakers, but he cashed three.
At one stretch in the third set, Novak dodged eight breakers. In that set’s last game Rafa dug out of 15-30 with two severely hooking service winners surrounding an ace. Rafa said: “I have never done that before. I’ve never played so well on the hard courts. Today I felt I had really played a good match (here) for the first time.”
Nadal is the third Spaniard to have won the US Championships following Manolo Santana in 1965, on grass and Manolo Orantes in 1975 on clay.
During a tournament in which he lost his serve a mere five times, and only one set, the one today, Rafa, says Novak, “proving each day, each year that he’s getting better. That’s what so frustrating a little bit. He’s getting better each time you play him.”
“He is so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. You know he has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever, in my opinion. He has proven to the world that he’s the best at this moment.”
Nadal said of himself: “My intensity, my mental attitude, on court is my greatest strength. Well, the life change sometimes, no? Ten months ago seems like I never gonna be another time the same. Now seems I gonna be one of the greatest…..”
“Last year I had a difficult year … second half of the year was very difficult for me, have some personal problems, home and after, I have a lot of injuries. I did not win a tournament for 11 months. I played for six months very bad. I came back in January of this year, playing really well, but the titles didn’t came. I had great mentality at that point.”
In winning his ninth major title, Nadal adds to his winning two other majors this year, the French Open and Wimbledon. So close to a Grand Slam (the four majors within a calendar year), he only lacked the Australian Open..
Loser of the US final to Federer in 2007, Djokovic has one major, the Australian in 2008, and is getting better, too.
Said one customer: “Fine player, Djokovic, but I’m mad at him. Beating Federer he robbed us of the Nadal-Federer final that we all wanted, have never had in the US, and probably won’t have now.”
Rafa, calling it “a dream, I can’t believe I have won all four majors,” and praising Djokovic saying he would surely win this tournament one day soon, had worried about stubbing his toes on the blue Ashe pavement because he was 3-7 against Novak on the hard stuff even though leading their rivalry, 13-7.
At 24 years, 101 days, Rafa is the third youngest of the career Slammers, behind 22-year-old Californian Don Budge in 1938 and 24 years. 32 days old, Aussie Rod Laver in 1962.
Rafa must have thought he was opposing the Djokovic family. There was the genuine Novak on the court and his mother, father and brother wearing tacky life-size Novak face T-shirts. Didn’t help. Not even the populace of Belgrade could have halted Roundhouse Rafa, not even the rain on his reign.