Ah, the traditional victory bite of grand slam silverware. For Rafael Nadal, how tasty it was. Sweet 16th will be the headline, as the world No.1 added a third US Open trophy to his two from Wimbledon, one in Australia and, of course, the extraordinary 10 at the French. After two seasons constrained by physical ailments and one, 2015, with what he calls a “mental injury”, Nadal describes as “unbelievable” his renaissance year.
Unbelievable… except that it’s happened. A retro men’s season at the majors has been a vintage one for the man now two clear of third-placed Pete Sampras on the all-time list of singles major winners, and again trailing front-runner Roger Federer by just three. Nadal says the pursuit is rarely in his thoughts, though. “I just do my way. He does his way. Let’s see when we finish, no? Of course if I will win two Grand Slams this year and he will not win, we’ll be closer, but it still happens one more year and he has 19, I think. I have 16. So three is big difference.”
It is also where the two great rivals started 2017, having emerged, rejuvenated, from breaks away from tennis of admittedly differing lengths, to start an unexpected domination of the game’s Big Four events. And if there was never any doubt that a fully fit Nadal was capable of winning another French Open – or several – then this hardcourt success is something else. The Spaniard’s last title not on clay – or grass, which made a Stuttgart cameo – was back in early 2014 in Doha, before physical issues also began to cloud his mind.
“Is so important, winning on hard court again. That’s a lot of positive energy for me,” Nadal said after Sunday’s emphatic 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 defeat of finals debutant Kevin Anderson, the seemingly-inevitable result taking two hours, 27 minutes. “Being healthy, you see everything more possible, no? With injuries, everything seems impossible. But being healthy and have the chance to practice well and compete well, everything change.”
There were some impressive numbers for a player now 16-7 in major finals: just 15 points lost in 14 service games, zero break points faced and a perfect 16 from 16 result at the net that prompted a social media discussion over whether, as John McEnroe has noted previously, Nadal is in fact a superior volleyer to Federer. Undeniable was the brilliance of his court coverage, superb anticipation combining with sprightly movement.
As Anderson noted during a gracious presentation ceremony, “we’re the same age, but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life”. So it must seem when your contemporary broke through for his debut major while still a teenager and is still winning them in multiples at the age of 31.
From here, the biggest prize on offer in the coming months is the year-end No.1 ranking that Nadal is now well-positioned to seize for the fourth time, but first since his 10-title season of 2013. He now leads Federer 9365 points to 7505, although it should be remembered that Andy Murray was able to reel in Novak Djokovic last year, a time that now almost feels like a different tennis age.
Who would have thought at the start of 2017, said John McEnroe, among the chorus of analysts and observers, that by the end of it we would see Federer and Nadal sharing the four singles slams? “It’s been a remarkable year in a lot of ways,” declared the former great on ESPN.
So it has – for the Swiss legend, firstly, and also for Nadal, even if none of Fed or injured trio Djokovic, Murray or Stan Wawrinka stood in his way this time, and in Anderson his finals foe was the lowest ranked in US Open history. It is still Rafa’s name on the trophy, his teethmarks on the handle, and his victory that will end a wholly unforeseen grand slam year.
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