NEW YORK – Rafael Nadal watched the 2012 U.S. Open final from his sofa. He celebrated the 2013 U.S. Open title with Sofia.
The Spaniard said the comeback season in between has probably been the most emotional of his career, punctuated by a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 final win over top-ranked Novak Djokovic for his second U.S. Open title and 13th Grand Slam overall.
He fell onto the Arthur Ashe Stadium court and broke down after 3 hours, 21 minutes, met Djokovic at the net, shook the chair umpire’s hand and dropped onto the cement once more, burying his head inside his left arm.
The sobs were understandable.
Nadal may not be No. 1 in the rankings yet, but there’s no doubt he’s the current leader of tennis’ Big Three. The climb is complete after a seven-month absence due to knee issues and a stomach virus that spread into February, followed by a first-round shocker at Wimbledon.
“I never thought something like this could happen, so excited to be back on tour trying to be competitive,” Nadal said.
Nadal is in position to finish a season healthy and on top of the ATP for the first time in three years, if the next two months go smoothly.
The pursuit of Roger Federer’s record 17 Grand Slam titles is on. Nadal, like Federer, won his 13th at age 27. He’s one behind Pete Sampras for second place.
“For me, it's much more than what I ever thought, what I ever dreamed,” he said. “You never know when that start, when that finish, but 13 is an amazing number.”
Nadal improved to 60-3 this year with 11 titles and a 22-0 record on hard courts, definitive statistics coming off serious doubts about his ability to return to the top.
A year ago, Nadal lost in the second round of Wimbledon to 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol. He missed the London Olympics and tweeted his withdrawal from the U.S. Open, saying doctors found a small tear in the patella tendon in his left knee and diagnosed him with Hoffa’s syndrome, an impingement of the fat pad below the kneecap.
He watched the 2012 U.S. Open final, Andy Murray’s five-set win over Djokovic, from his couch in Mallorca, Spain. Nadal avoided surgery but couldn’t return to practice until November. He wouldn’t let doubts enter his mind.
“With seven months (away), I am sure that I will not forget how to play tennis,” said Nadal, who won his first Slam at the 2005 French Open, two days after he turned 19. “If you are healthy, if you have been in the top positions for nine years already or eight years and you stop for seven months, why you will not have the chance to be back there?”
A December stomach virus complicated matters. Nadal pulled out of the Australian Open and, after winning a $200 poker tournament, finally returned for lower-level clay-court events beginning in February. In his first event back, in Chile, he lost to a guy named Horacio Zeballos in the final and said, “I’m not perfect yet.”
Nadal slipped out of the top four for the first time since 2005 and entered the French Open, a tournament he had won a record seven times, as the No. 5 seed. There, he beat Djokovic in a memorable semifinal and dispatched countryman David Ferrer for his eighth Coupe des Mousquetaires.
But he wasn’t all the way back. Nadal was upset again at Wimbledon, this time in even more stunning fashion, by No. 135 Steve Darcis of Belgium in the first round. Darcis had won two ATP matches all year and has won none since.
"Nobody remembers the losses. People remember the victories," Nadal said, shaking his head after the defeat. "And I don't want to remember that loss."
Nadal said he needed to go home, think and analyze his situation. The U.S. hard-court season was upon him, the surface that tests his troublesome knees more than any other.
He not only passed the test, he was perfect, going 10-0 over two Masters Series events to return to New York as the favorite. He delivered, dropping one game on his serve in the first six matches. Nadal set up a third U.S. Open final in four years against Djokovic as Roger Federer and Murray faded away.
Djokovic had his own motivation, attempting to win his second Grand Slam of the year and stall Nadal’s climb.
“It is a challenge you have to accept,” Djokovic said of facing Nadal, “like it or not.”
The flow of their rivalry was reflected in the rhythm of the match, and Nadal-Djokovic XXXVII was super.
Nadal prevailed in five of their first six meetings. Djokovic took six in a row during his dominating 2011 season. Nadal has won six of the last seven in just under 4 hours per duel.
“Very, very emotional,” Nadal said before biting his trophy. “Nobody brings my game to that limit like Novak.”
Djokovic didn’t appear to wake up until the highlight of the final – perhaps the tournament, perhaps the year – a Pong-like 54-shot rally to break Nadal for the second time all tournament (89 games) in the second set. It was game on from there.
Nadal broke Djokovic on the ensuing game. The gluten-free, six-time major champion screamed in Serbian to himself, his box and his towel. He then broke Nadal again, after five deuces, for a 5-3 lead and converted set point with a backhand down the line winner.
Djokovic then broke Nadal, for the third straight time, at love to start the third. It looked like the Spaniard was running out of gas, but he capitalized on Djokovic unforced errors (he had 53 for the match) to even it at 3-3 in the third set, 2 hours, 18 minutes in.
Nadal pulled away as night fell, save a third-set tumble to go down love-30 on his own serve at 4-all in the third. He went triple break down but saved each break point. The last on a 125-mph serve, his hardest of the match and first ace.
Nadal then won four straight points on Djokovic’s serve to take the fourth set. His kneeling, triple fist-pumping jubilant celebration was Vine-worthy.
“I really don't know what's going on in that moment,” Nadal said.
Nadal rocked back to his chair and headbanged three times in a ritual to put his bandana back on. He closed out the match in a 40-minute final set, punctuating this journey of a Grand Slam season.
“You deserve it,” Djokovic told Nadal at the net.
Nadal’s win moved him to 22-15 against Djokovic, including 2-1 in U.S. Open finals. No two players have met more times in the Open Era, and this match, at times, rivaled their 5-hour, 53-minute final at the 2012 Australian Open, won by Djokovic.
Nadal said his game has changed. He’s playing more aggressive than before, more inside the court and closer to the baseline. He’s going for more shots. It’s working.
“Confident, playing with big passion, fighting for every ball,” Nadal said. “That makes that success.”
It’s been said this is men’s tennis’ Golden Era. It will continue into the next major, the Australian Open in 125 days.
There, Nadal will try to become the first man in the Open Era (since 1968) to win all four Slams at least twice. There, Djokovic will try to become the first man to win the event four straight times in the Open Era. There, Murray will be looked on to rebound after a poor post-Wimbledon summer and Federer will be out to reverse his decline.
All tennis royalty, but Nadal is now the king, again. His celebration Monday night included a meeting with Spain’s Queen Sofia, but he’s staying grounded.
Nadal knows he’s not invincible, called a future calendar Grand Slam “impossible” and would prefer easy opponents in finals.
“Don't worry, I will lose,” he said, a needed reminder given his current level of play. “Everybody lose.”