September 12, 2011
One of the greatest seasons in tennis history was capped by one of the sport's most brilliantly played finals. Novak Djokovic won his third Grand Slam of 2011, holding off a late charge from defending champion Rafael Nadal to win a superb four-set marathon at the U.S. Open, 6-2, 6-3, 6-7, 6-1.
The score line may not look like much but Monday's final was a closely contested match that featured jaw-dropping rallies, remarkable defense and a 17-minute game that may have swung the balance of modern tennis history.
[ Related: Djokovic, Nadal exchange thrilling rally ]
Djokovic improved to 64-2 on the year. With a decent fall season, he could make his 2011 the greatest single-season in the history of tennis.
The Serbian got out to an early lead, coming back twice from 0-2 deficits in the first two sets to get ahead of Nadal. His serve returns were the catalyst; Djokovic pushed Nadal deep in the court and left the athletic Spaniard uncharacteristically flat-footed on a number of points. On others, the rivals combined for tremendous rallies where defense turned to offense and the crowd cheered out in excitement for presumptive winners, only to see Djokovic or Nadal get back in the point and have it continue for 15 more shots. These were shots that made you pick up the phone to text a friend to make sure they were watching.
The Game, as it's bound to be called, will go down in the annals of U.S. Open lore. A 17-minute, eight-deuce affair early in the second set gave Djokovic an early edge from which it looked like Nadal may not recover.
In the third set though, Nadal came back from a break down with an aggressive change of strategy. Instead of lengthening points, he tried to shorten them, moving Djokovic across the court and looking like the player with the two-set lead while a tentative Djokovic appeared to shrink under the weight of his historic season. The change worked, and when Nadal took the third-set tiebreak, the momentum in New York had shifted. The pro-Rafa crowd of 23,000 was frenzied as the match went into a fourth set.
That's when Djokovic, hobbled with a back strain, took a medical timeout while leading at 1-0. Nadal waited nearly seven minutes as Djokovic received treatment. When he returned, a little gimpy in between points but agile as ever during them, Djokovic regained control of the match. Nadal seemed unsure how to play the slowed Djokovic and the crowd was of little factor following the delay. It didn't help that Nadal had used up most of his energy in the third-set comeback and, as a result, the fourth was devoid of the drama that had made the first three so special. He won 6-1 in the fourth, capping the four-hour, 10-minute match.
Djokovic has defeated Nadal six straight times this season, a streak which will lead to assertions that Djokovic is in his opponent's head. Nadal doesn't help matters with his introspective press conferences in which he wonders the same thing. But Djokovic isn't in Nadal's head. If he was, Nadal wouldn't have fought so hard in that third set to come back. He wouldn't have believed he could win the match. A broken man would have waived the white flag in the third, accepted his runner-up trophy and gone back home.
The issue for Nadal is that Novak Djokovic is a better tennis player right now, one who's in the midst of the greatest run the sport has ever seen.
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