Rafael Nadal’s 2017 US Open triumph was not spectacular.
This is reality, and we might as well examine the unflattering facts. From the start of the tournament, when Andy Murray’s withdrawal amidst a landslide of top ten injuries left the draw unbelievably lopsided, the stage was set for an unimpressive victory for the eventual champion. With Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori – all New York forces of recent times – among those watching from the sidelines, and other notable names struggling for the form necessary to capitalise on their absences, this largely seemed a two horse race between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. To make things look even poorer, neither player was in their best shape despite dominating the season.
In the aftermath of his final 6-3 6-3 6-4 defeat of Kevin Anderson – South Africa’s late-blooming big server who lost five of his first seven matches this season – interviewer Chris McKendry asked Nadal: “Sixteen Grand Slam titles, and they don’t get any easier, do they?”
In response, the US Open champion grinned weakly, but didn’t join in with her laughter. Both his major triumphs this season have been sealed in straight sets in the final showdown, and in the latest he did not face a single top 20 player en route to the crown. In the excitement of his 16th Grand Slam trophy, the statistic was glossed over a little.
Skip back ten days from now, and Nadal – ever the perfectionist – probably dared not imagine that he would be lifting the Arthur Ashe trophy at the end of the fortnight. To be clear, this was not due to his year as a whole. Indeed, the self-made lefty had been one of the clear-cut best players of the season without question. After coming inches from victory against Roger Federer in a high-quality Melbourne finale, he fell only to his red-hot rival in both Indian Wells and Miami, before dominating the dirt courts in a manner that earned him his most famous nickname: the “King of Clay”. Even when he lost in the Wimbledon fourth round to a zoning and underrated Gilles Muller, the Spaniard was mere points from escaping unscathed from a clash in which his opponent played the match of is life.
But the hard-court swing brought its fair share of worries, after losses to young foe Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios further jolted his progress. With this surface unable to yield the 31-year-old success since 2013 – and this section of the season often a period where the year’s brightest stars become vulnerable – he was not being rated at his current world no. 1 ranking as the tour headed to the Big Apple.
In the opening rounds of New York action – rounds which simultaneously feel like mere hours and several years ago – the Spaniard had to claw his way through clashes with average opposition, struggling with lack of depth and unforced errors. It was after his third round encounter that he stated he would not win the title playing at his current standard. And obvious from his pre-tournament press conference was the fact that he did not fancy his chances in a semifinal collision with third seed Roger Federer, who had defied their head-to-head record to go 3-0 in the duo’s collisions this season.
But this leads us to what the Spaniard did well – and not just well, but brilliantly – on his way to a third US Open title. From the round of 16 onwards, Nadal did fire up his groundstroke game: finding the potency of his forehand and his feet around the court and his serve in the big moments. The intensity that never left him was channelled and intimidating, and he was not afraid to finish off points at the net – which happened to be where he ended his tournament. But it was neither his relentless, fighting defence, nor his smart point construction, that earned the top seed ultimate triumph.
The French Open was, and will surely be, the crowning moment of Nadal’s 2017 season. After the never-ending trials of 2015 and the continued doubts of last year, his demolition jobs on the dirt – sustained from weeks of near-perfection on the surface prior to Roland Garros – were the clearest message that he should never have been written off.
But while Paris sent a statement stronger than words to all of the Spaniard’s critics and naysayers, the US Open was where things truly came full circle for one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
In his tumultuous 2015 season, Nadal had been incredibly honest about how his once-renowned mentality was disintegrating. The nerves that pulsated through his body before a match took control far too often, debilitating his game and pulling shots wide of the tramlines. He doubted himself and his ability, and he began to lose his intimidation factor. His fight lost its all-important edge.
He did not believe, and he could not capitalise on opportunities.
In New York, Nadal faced – rankings-wise – his easiest ever run to a major title. But his final rounds were still abundantly impressive, and at its core, that was due to his mentality. When Federer was downed by Juan Martin del Potro, the Spaniard did not waver at the magnitude of the chance awaiting him – and the sudden pressure placed upon his shoulders. Facing a man who had dealt him a heartbreaking loss in the semifinals of the Rio Olympics, and who had also beaten him five times in total, the 31-year-old held firm after losing the first set to the Argentine. At times breathtaking with the execution of his strategy, he surrendered all of five games throughout the last three sets.
Then, faced with an unexpected finalist virtually free of outside pressure – and, in a way, able to simply go out and swing as if he had nothing to lose – in Kevin Anderson, Nadal consistently stayed in the moment. He shrugged off failing to break in three marathon return games by speeding through service holds. And after he finally stepped ahead when Anderson struggled for a fourth time, his patience and perseverance were rewarded. The time required to complete one set alone – and a set which he had lost – made the mountain look almost unassailable for the 28th seeded South African.
Traditionally, Rafael Nadal finishes championship point and falls onto his back in relief and elation. On Sunday, Rafael Nadal stood on his feet with his hands in the air.
There was no relief. There was simply belief. A self belief so strong and so focussed and so formidable that – in the end – he had almost made winning the US Open look straightforward.
Two years ago, Nadal’s head game was in tatters. Today, Nadal is at the top of the rankings with a rock-hard mentality. And right now, he has become the man that nobody wants to face.
In and of itself, Nadal’s US Open victory will not stand out in the history books. It will not be lauded as a phenomenal run to a major title, because it frankly was not. But on a surface that has never been his closest friend, Nadal showed the world that however old someone is, however many times someone is told they are done, and whatever is happening around someone, that person – if they never called it quits – can rise back up.
And Rafael Nadal is not a quitter. He is a 16 time Grand Slam champion. And this time next year, that number could well have increased.
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