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Nadal's 13th Slam About More Than Luck

NEW YORK - Did he choke or did the other guy raise his game? 

That’s an eternal – and in this case - operative question after Monday evening’s strange yet compelling US Open final contested between, inarguably, the two greatest players in the world, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Down 0-40, at 4-4, with the match knotted at a set apiece, Nadal truly did raise his game and won four straight points – with his only ace of the match coming at 30-40 – and from that point forward the match, for all practical purposes, was over. The final score line was 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. With his victory, Nadal now is the owner of 13 Slam titles and moves him into truly elite company with only Pete Sampras and Roger Federer ahead of him. Nadal has compiled an extraordinary 60-4 record for the year.

The final was contested in breezy but otherwise ideal weather conditions in front of a raucous and at times uncontrollable crowd (at one point, Toni Nadal - Nadal’s uncle and coach - and other members in his box got into a verbal confrontation with a loud and boorish fan who was screaming during points). Surprisingly, the crowd sided with Djokovic for much of the night.

A key stat in the match: Nadal won seven of 12 break points whereas Djokovic only converted three of 11 opportunities. It is this ability of Nadal, that of playing his best during break situations that has been his trademark since he frustrated Roger Federer at the 2008 Wimbledon final (on that day, Federer made good on one of 13 break opportunities).

Nadal started the match in dominating fashion by utilizing the shot he has perfected this year – his inside-out forehand. The Spaniard also confounded Djokovic by continuing to slice on his backhand side, not allowing Djokovic to swing freely through the ball. This strategy worked brilliantly in the opening stanza as Djokovic, as he appeared when he took on Stan Wawrinka in the semifinal, looked sluggish as he sprayed errant shots.

But Djokovic, as has been his tendency these last three years, regained momentum in the second set after a jaw-dropping 54-stroke rally on break point on Nadal’s serve at 2-3 that sent the packed throngs at Arthur Ashe Stadium into a frenzy. Though Nadal surprisingly broke back right away, Djokovic returned the favor by again breaking Nadal and ran out the set and looked to be in firm control.

Djokovic then proceeded to win the first two games of the third set and it was clear the momentum had shifted. Suddenly it appeared like 2011 all over again, with Djokovic extending rallies and Nadal coming up short time after time. Djokovic began to take advantage of the suddenly predictable Nadal game plan by playing more aggressively against the sliced backhands and also moving Nadal side-to-side. 

At this juncture it was obvious that Djokovic was dictating play and, with Nadal looking crestfallen and slightly dejected, it appeared a foregone conclusion that Djokovic would go up two sets to one.

But then came a crucial hold by Nadal. Fighting off three break points, Nadal held serve for 1-2 and his intense, positive reaction upon just holding serve was very telling. The two traded relatively easy service games until that crucial 4-4 game that decided the encounter.

Uncharacteristically, Djokovic committed 53 errors vs. only 20 for Nadal. This is indicative of Djokovic needing to go for his shots more and Nadal was more apt at turning defense into offense on this day.  

"For a few [reasons], this is probably the most emotional one in my career," Nadal said after the match. "I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here. You play one match against one of the best players in the history. I know I have to be almost perfect to win. It means a lot for me to have this trophy with me today."

It’s easy to see why it was such an emotional triumph for Nadal. After missing seven months of playing time he has come back and compiled an incredible 60-4 match record in 2013. He has now won three Slams at least two times (eight French, two Wimbledon, two US Open to go with his one Australian title). Though his knees could give out at any time and it’d be utterly foolish to play the conjecture game in terms of how many more major titles he might win, Nadal can now set his sights on Federer’s once-seemingly uneatable number of 17 Slams.

For Djokovic, the typically reflective and gracious Serb said it best:

“Especially against Rafa ... you feel that there is the last drop of energy you need to use in order to win the point. Sometimes, I was winning those points; sometimes him. It’s what we do when play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit. That’s the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end.”

Indeed.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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