No reign delay for Nadal

Spain's Rafael Nadal shows off the spoils of victory, becoming just the seventh man in history to complete a career Grand Slam in tennis.
Spain's Rafael Nadal shows off the spoils of victory, becoming just the seventh man in history to complete a career Grand Slam in tennis. (Nick Laham)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. - In 2008, mental exhaustion undermined Rafael Nadal's U.S. Open campaign. In 2009, a torn abdominal muscle torpedoed his cause.

This year, the Spaniard arrived at the season's final major fully fit in every respect. And not the first week's withering heat, the second week's maddening wind, Monday's nearly two-hour rain delay or a gut-spilling challenge from Serbia's Novak Djokovic denied the dream.

With a chance to take his place alongside the tennis greats, Nadal blasted his way to his first U.S. Open championship, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, to claim the one major title to elude him. And with it, he became just the seventh man in history to complete a career Grand Slam (winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open), achieving at 24 what it took Roger Federer until 27 and Andre Agassi until 29.

While the narrative of most tennis matches can be conveyed by statistics, Monday's defied quantitative analysis. It was decided on courage, conviction and jaw-dropping athleticism, displayed in ample measure on both sides of the net.

And when Djokovic sent one last forehand wide to seal the Spaniard's victory after 3 hours 43 minutes, Nadal fell on his back, then rolled on his stomach, his torso heaving as if contorted by sobs. By the time he rose, intending to trot to the net for the customary handshake, Djokovic met him en route. The two embrace as flashbulbs erupted and the capacity crowd of 23,771 at Arthur Ashe Stadium stood and cheered.

"More than what I dreamed," is how Nadal described it on court.

And later, he said: "I worked a lot all my life, [through] difficult moments, to be here. I never imagined have [all] four Grand Slams."

Nadal's U.S. Open victory, and the manner in which he finally won it after seven years of trying, will no doubt be added to a long list of exhibits in the argument over whether he or Federer is the better player and, should their dominance continue, who is more likely to retire as the greatest in history.

Nadal steadfastly refuses to submit his name for such debate, seizing every opportunity to praise Federer (who has won a record 16 majors to his nine) for having achieved something that's nearly impossible.

On Monday, so too did Nadal, who just a few years ago was regarded as a clay-court specialist whose skills would never translate to hard courts or grass.

Nadal has now won three consecutive majors in a four-month span, each on a different surface. And he did so by re-inventing his game - beefing up his serve, sharpening his volley, flattening his groundstrokes, developing a slice backhand and altering his court positioning to lurk closer to the baseline.

What distinguishes Nadal from other top players - even more so than the muscularity of his strokes and his single-mindedness of purpose - is the same thing that distinguished Federer during his five-year reign atop the sport. Even after reaching No. 1 in the world, Nadal has continued to improve. In Nadal's view, as in Federer's, reaching No. 1 was not culmination of anything. His goal remains as elusive as ever: To develop the ideal tennis game.

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