By Jane Voigt
Rafael Nadal has his lucky number 13. He set his sights on it way back in 2012, at Wimbledon, when he lost to a little-known player ranked way outside the top 100 in the second round. He left Centre Court with his head down, his heart heavy, and his left knee in need of some serious rest and rehabilitation that night.
Seven months passed without Rafa. He missed last year’s Open and this year’s Australian Open.
Tonight, with his defeat of world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, in the 2013 men’s final of the U. S. Open, the Spaniard has promoted himself to star status. He has flown so far away from that dismal day at Wimbledon it must feel like a swoosh of freedom to a man many thought could be washed up.
He showed anything but that tonight as he won his 13th Grand Slam and second U. S. Open. He also won in 2010.
Nadal’s defeat of Djokovic, 62 36 64 61, was a three-hour commotion of tennis that far and away was the best match of the tournament and will most likely rate as one of the best matches of the year.
The tennis from both was superb, a rarified blend of movement, power, athleticism, accuracy, composure, and mental toughness. There were dozens of jaw-dropping points where each man executed a brand of tennis that can only be described as otherworldly. Twenty-shot rallies were usurped by 28-, 29- and one 54-shot rally that brought 24,500 fans inside Arthur Ashe Stadium to their feet in deafening pandemonium.
Nadal’s ability to anticipate Novak’s shot placement was keenly intuitive. The Spaniard did not miss, early on, making his opponent look sloppy, ill at ease, and nervous. However, Djokovic’s game was stunted by Nadal’s slippery spins, body serves, and a relentless appetite for perfection.
Nadal and Djokovic have now played 36 matches, the most of any two men on tour ever. Nadal leads with a 22-15 record. But Djokovic retains the one to beat on hard courts at 11-7.
Nadal and Djokovic had each won one major this year. Djokovic won the Australian Open for the fourth time; and, Nadal won Roland Garros for the 8th time. Since this was the last major of the year, Nadal ends it with two of the four majors firmly on display in his camp.
“Very very emotional for me,” Nadal said on court. “All of my team knows how much the match [means] to me. Congratulations to Novak and his team. No one brings my game to that limit.”
Nadal earned a total of $3.6 million USD tonight, the same bounty hauled in by Serena Williams for having won the women’s singles title. One gets the feeling that the prize money is just a byproduct of winning, when it comes to Nadal, though.
“First of all, I want to congratulate Rafa and his team,” Djokovic said on court. “He was too good today and deserves to win the trophy. It’s disappointing to lose match like this. But a privilege to fight for it. Thanks all you guys for this.”
Nadal came into the final having been broken once in 83 games by Richard Gasquet in the semifinal. Novak Djokovic broke Nadal three times this evening. The first was a doozy.
It happened in the second set. The ball kept going over the net. Cross court. Down the line. Deep. Shallow. Under spin and top spin. Grunts from both added a beat, like a bass guitar. Fans squelched their brimming enthusiasm at 30 shots, 45 shots, how much longer can this go on. Don’t disturb them. It has to end soon. Oh my … this has to be … no, it’s still going.
Djokovic threw up his arms in a sign of victory, after Nadal’s last ball hit the net. The audience’s applause swirled in the cavernous stadium. Djokovic smiled, happy, relieved. A passing hint of confidence traveled over his face. It was short lived, as Nadal stomped on Novak’s enthusiasm immediately by taking the next game. In the end, though, Djokovic won his only set of the night.
Djokovic was firmly in control of the third set, too. In the ninth game, he was poised to break again. He had three game points on Nadal’s serve. Suddenly the score and Djokovic’s confidence was pulled out from under him as if by slight-of-hand. Nadal saved the game points, went up 5-4, and then closed the set in a flurry.
It left Djokovic tired, weak with disappointment. His timing on the ball suffered, too. The match was certainly over for him.
“It was disappointing that I dropped the third set,” Djokovic said in his press conference. “I felt like especially in the first four, five games, I was the one who was dictating the play. But it’s all my fault. I made unforced error and dropped the serve twice. Next thing you know, it’s two sets to one for him. Then he started playing much, much better after that. I obviously could not revoker after that loss.”
Rafael Nadal came into the U. S. Open with his best-ever record. He had won 9 titles, reaching the final in 11 of the 12 tournaments he entered. He has never played with more confidence. And it showed tonight. As good as Djokovic can be on hard court, Nadal remained relentless in his belief of victory. He did not rush. He did not complain to the chair umpire. He trotted to the baseline, his head down, and his heart waiting to explode with joy.
He was rewarded.