September 9, 2013

Defying Expectations

It took quite a long time for Rafael Nadal to find his footing in New York.

He'd already won four crowns at Roland Garros, made three straight finals at Wimbledon -- taking a title there, too -- and climbed to the top of the rankings before he even reached the semis here. He lost time and again to players ranked below him -- #49 James Blake in 2005, #54 Mikhail Youzhny a year later -- and couldn't beat any player in the top ten in the three years after that. And even after capturing the previously elusive hardcourt Major in Melbourne, this one spot in this trophy case remained empty.

Rafa finally broke the seal, of course, completing the career Grand Slam in 2010. But with the rise of upstarts over the next several seasons, an injury-plagued 2012, and some shockingly early exits outside of Paris, it seemed like the Spaniard would have a tough time reclaiming the momentum that brought him his sole victory in Flushing Meadows.


Nadal rebounded from his first round loss at the All England Club and roared through the draw in Montreal. He followed up with a win in Cincinnati, his first ever title there, and came to New York with a perfect record on hardcourts, what's long been the worst surface of his career. Despite the secondary ranking he brought with him to the U.S. Open, he was, against all odds, considered the favorite here, and with just one break of serve on his way to the final, he was performing like it too.

Meanwhile, top-seeded Novak Djokovic had lived up to his own expectations. A thrilling win over first-time Slam semifinalist Stanislas Wawrinka on Saturday, put him in his fourth straight U.S. Open final. He seemed lethargic in the first set of Monday's championship, broken twice in about forty minutes to fall into an early hole, but came back in style in the second, breaking the previously untouchable Nadal in three straight games to even the score and then get a lead.

But that's when Rafa turned up the heat -- just as momentum had shifted back to one of the best hardcourt players in the sport, he was able to put together shots that had the entire crowd on their feet. He fought back from the brink and rolled through the final set, capturing his second trophy on the grounds that had proved his foil for so long.

The win, Nadal's second Major of the year and thirteenth overall, puts him in a league above most others in the field, just one Slam behind the Pete Sampras. He's only lost three matches all year, and the way he's playing it doesn't seem like he's going to cede many more in the months that come. And this is a position few of us thought he'd be in just a year ago.

But if we've learned anything by watching this champion over the last eight years, it's that nothing is out of his reach. And by reclaiming the crown in New York, he's shown that he's going to be grabbing for everything in sight for some time to come.

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