US Open 2011: Novak Djokovic outguns Rafael Nadal in epic contest at Flushing Meadows
In a city that has come to understand the value of endurance, tennis’s new emperor Novak Djokovic gave a glimpse here of the power of the human spirit.
Rapture: Novak Djokovic lets out a cry of joy after defeating Rafael Nadal in an epic final
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Since the players started arriving for this US Open, New York has survived an earthquake, a hurricane and a tropical storm, as well as the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Centre disaster.
When placed alongside such real-world disasters, tennis might seem trivial, but the people of this city appreciate courage when they see it, and they revelled in Djokovic’s superhuman resilience on Monday night.
Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in four sets, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 but it was more like a five-setter in its intensity. The match lasted fully 4 hours and 10 minutes and just about every point felt like a fist-fight to the death.
In each of the three sets, Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve early on and gave himself the chance of taking control. On each occasion, Djokovic broke straight back again, wrestling the mighty Spaniard back with a focus that can only stem from absolute self-belief.
There were so many extraordinary moments in this final, so many apparently unreturnable shots that were sent back with interest. One of the early highlights came at the start of the second set, in a Nadal service game that lasted 17 minutes and contained eight deuces.
Tennis anoraks still talk about the John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg tie-break of 1980 as the greatest passage of play in the sport’s history. But this sequence ran it close. Nadal, serving for 3-0, had game point three times.
He saved break point five times. And then, in a rally that just kept giving, Djokovic retrieved three lost causes until a disbelieving Nadal finally dumped a smash into the net.
Djokovic’s style will never be quite as mellifluous as Roger Federer’s, and neither does he have the pugilistic quality of Nadal.
At the moment, though, he is a more complete player than either. He has become unbreakable – an agile and beautifully balanced athlete who has developed a near-mystical faith in his own ability.
The certainty of his vision is uncanny. We saw it in the semi-final, where he faced match point on Federer’s serve and whipped an untouchable return crosscourt. And we saw it again yesterday.
As the points grew longer – and the average for the match was close to seven strokes per rally, which is virtually unheard of - it was usually Djokovic who outlasted his rival. He bent with the wind, in the face of Nadal’s ferocious forehand, yet he never fell.
Nadal will go away listed as the loser of this match yet he was almost as immovable as Djokovic. He did perhaps start a little slowly, making only 58 per cent of his first serves in the first set and struggling to find the necessary depth with his backhand.
But after absorbing a huge amount of punishment in the first two sets, Nadal still managed to take the initiative early in the third. He broke serve twice and must have felt that he was gaining ground when Djokovic began to stretch his back and show a little weariness in his serve and movement.
Could that shoulder injury which afflicted Djokovic in the final of the Cincinnati Masters be returning to plague him again?
Apparently not. Djokovic was clearly breathless for a couple of games, and his cannon-like groundstrokes lost their customary bite, but then he also regrouped and the set went to a tie-break.
Nadal’s Wimbledon final against Federer in 2009 is widely considered to be the greatest match ever played, and the fact that it went to sudden death in the final set still makes it the benchmark. But this was almost as notable, simply because each point had to be won so many times over.
As it stretched past the three-hour mark, one might have expected the players to become weary and erratic. Instead they achieved a zen-like focus, entering that glassy-eyed place that athletes call “the zone”.
In some of their exchanges, you wondered whether we would we would have to wait until dawn for one of them to miss.
At the peaks of the performance, points were constructed with a skill and ingenuity that made any normal tennis match look crude, like a wooden shack alongside a cathedral.
Openings were hard to find with a single brute-force winner; they had to be carved out, little by little. And even then, if the player with the advantage missed his killing thrust, the other would wipe him out with a whip-smart riposte.
Nadal has never lost a grand slam final in straight sets, and he was not about to start now. He took the tie-break 7-3, and then Djokovic called the trainer onto the court to attend to his back.
But Nadal was now starting to suffer even more. He could not maintain the intensity he had found in the third set as his own body weakened.
This final was a magnificent conclusion to what has been a flawed yet never less than fascinating tournament.
The only thing that took a touch of gloss away was the crass behaviour of a handful of idiots in the crowd, who kept on shouting out when the players were preparing to serve, or even when they were in the middle of a point.
Gasps and murmurs of astonishment were impossible to suppress, such was the jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, spirit-lifting quality of the tennis.
But these players were performing at the very peak of their ability, and they deserved better than to be interrupted by a few moronic narcissists.
The rest of the crowd made their feelings known by shushing loudly at every interruption.
They knew they were in the presence of greatness.
Re-posted from The Telegraph