Rafa Nadal was a prohibitive 5-1 favorite to win in his 23rd Grand Slam final. For the fourth time in his career, he was on top of the tennis mountain – No. 1 in the world.
His foe, the 6’8″ Kevin Anderson, was hoping to become the tallest Grand Slam winner ever. But beating Rafa, quite obviously, is a tall order.
The last South African to reach a Grand Slam, Kevin Curren, was famous for saying that an atomic bomb should be dropped on loud and messy Flushing Meadows. Yes, Anderson’s serves are bombs. But clearly Nadal had the artillery to mute them.
At the Open, Rafa had overcome early bumps in the road en route to the final, and dismantled the beloved Juan Martin del Potro in the semis. So there was little doubt he would win – right?
But Rafa twitches. At times he’ll complain – hard courts are rough on the body, the season is too long, there is not enough time between points. And often Rafa worries. This is sports – anything can happen. Going all the way back to 2014, Rafa hadn’t won a hard court tournament in 34 tries. And big hitters like Anderson – for instance Lukas Rosol, Nick Kyrgios, Robin Soderling, Jo-Willie Tsonga and Dustin Brown – have shown they can give him fits. So Rafa was nervous – he had doubts.
Yes, we know that Rafa’s muscles have muscles. But don’t be fooled. The hunky guy is a surprisingly deep thinker. He once told IT, “Doubts are part of this life. Persons who don’t have doubts are arrogant…Doubts are in everything. Nothing is clear in this world. So I for sure have doubts, but I work as much as I can…[to get] the right mentality.”
Today we saw the passion of Rafa as he put on a master clinic to – seamlessly and rather mercilessly – take down Anderson, the No. 28 seed, who was hoping to become the lowest-ranked player to win the US Open. The 31-year-old who lives in Florida has been working with a psychologist. He now offers a modest “C’mon” when good things happen. The power of positive thinking matters. But today there was little for Kevin to be positive about. He didn’t manage to get a single break point.
Anderson, who starred at the University of Illinois, was the first Grand Slam finalist with a college connection since Todd Martin in 1999. But he got schooled today by professor Nadal.
Tiger Woods was watching from Rafa’s friends box. But it was Rafa who pounced. En route to his sixteenth Slam, Rafa charged the net 16 times and won all sixteen points. (Wasn’t he supposed to be a baseliner?) He dropped just 15 points on his 14 service games. A clever tactician, he backed off to return serve. It seemed as if he was returning from Delaware. “If he goes any further back,” joked Chris Fowler, “they’ll have to charge him for a ticket.”
It didn’t take long for the Spaniard to punch his ticket to the Championship. In the first set, Nadal held serve with commanding ease. But Anderson struggled – he had 13 deuce points in his first three service games. Then, when Rafa had his fifth break point, Kevin mis-hit a simple forehand wide, allowing Nadal to break to go up 4-3.
After that it was prime time for the Spanish master to shine on the grand New York stage. Rafa showed off lightning speed, his intuitive anticipation, and, of course, his famous topspin forehand. His defensive savvy – which absorbs pace and forces you to hit yet another shot – was on full display, as were his vastly underrated volleys. As always, Rafa was brimming with a sense of mission and focus that few others have. Nothing – not shouting ladies from Row J, loud trains headed to Long Island or 134 mph aces from Anderson – distracted him. He pins his foes in corners. He takes away their time. He makes them hit extra shots. It’s demoralizing.
Still, we wondered about the essence of this man. So, who better to ask than Tiger Woods? We dodged assorted 285-pound security guards, and as Tiger instructed his kids where to walk, we asked, “Excuse me, Mr. Woods, what makes Rafa Nadal such a great athlete?
“It’s heart, it’s as simple as that.” Good answer, Tiger.
Anderson went into more detail, telling IT what made Rafa special is “his competitiveness and consistency. He never goes away. I’ve seen so many times where he’s maybe down a break and he’s able to play every single point at such a high intensity.
“A lot of guys might get angry at a line call and suddenly they start playing better. I have never seen it where there’s some external factor and suddenly Rafa’s bringing better tennis. He brings that high energy every single point…[And it] goes without saying his ground strokes, his movement, defensive skills, it all comes together. He blended that very well tonight. He played a lot of defense when he needed to. Any time you leave a ball hanging, he’s really able to take advantage.”
Ten months ago Roger Federer went to Majorca to help open the Rafa Nadal Junior Academy. Distant from the glare, the giants embraced. Hobbled and humbled, their bodies were dealing with injuries and their pride was dealing with their No. 9 and No. 17 rankings. Now, amazingly, the prime duo of our era, for the first time since 2010, have won all four Grand Slams. The 31- and 36-year-olds have dominated our sport like no other duo.
Yes, this special night belongs to Nadal – he won 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. But the long simmering debate on who is the greatest player of all time – which was put on hold after Roger won in Melbourne and at Wimbledon – has been renewed.
“I really never thought much about that,” Rafa said. “I just do my way. He does his way. Let’s see when we finish, no?…He has 19. I have 16. So three is [a] big difference.
“This rivalry,” Rafa continued, “has been important for our sport…[It has] involved a lot of people…[with] different styles, different characters…That was the great promotion for our sport… because our relationship has always been very respectful and friendly. I’m very happy with all the things that are happening…[It] is so important, winning on hard court again…Being healthy, you see everything [is] more possible, no?…I still have the passion and the love for the game. I still want to compete and still feel the nerves every time that I go on court…When some day arrives that I don’t feel that nerves…[and the] extra passion for the game that I feel, it will be the day to say, okay, I do another thing.
“Well done for Roger that he is having an amazing season, and well done for me because I’m having a great season too… I have been in an era that three players achieve 19, 16 and 12 [Slams]. That’s a lot, no? There are just two things that probably we share, that is passion for what we are doing – passion for the competition – and the spirit of improvement all the time…We have been hard workers…I feel lucky to be part of it.”
Yes, baseball had Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Golf boasted Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Ali vs. Frazier was boxing’s fabled rivalry. And women’s tennis had Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova. But, even though they have never met in New York, Rafa and Roger have lifted our game and filled our imaginations with wonder. And you can’t ask any more than that from a couple of tennis players.