NEW YORK — A hollowed-out U.S. Open ended with Rafael Nadal stomping around the gnarled terrain, flinging diabolical shots at a hapless opponent, then standing near the net, turning around to his team in the stands and beaming his gentleman’s smile. He became the first man in 17 years to win a Grand Slam title without beating a top-20 player along the way, yet also capped his surging recovery from a dicey autumn of 2016 and edited, again, the highest standings of men’s tennis history.
When he rampaged through the first-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, on Sunday in a tepid Arthur Ashe Stadium, he faced not a single break point, upheld the long, incredible hegemony of the “Big Four” and even looked sort of calm while saying later, “I was not calm.”
It meant that Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 46 of the past 51 Grand Slams, even as Djokovic and Murray missed this event with injury and Federer hobbled out in the quarterfinals. Mix in Stanislas Wawrinka, who also missed this tournament, and the number goes to 49.
The more compelling numbers, for the sake of the arguments that addle the tennis corners of the Internet, would be the Grand Slam totals for Federer and Nadal. The year began with that score at 17-14, Federer, and plausibly could have held right there. Instead, it shifted to 18-14, then 18-15, then 19-15 and now 19-16. With their 20s gone at ages 36 (Federer) and 31 (Nadal), the long-famous Swiss and Spaniard hogged the whole lot.
“Quite an achievement,” Anderson said, “regardless of how good they are.”
“Of course it’s something difficult to imagine eight months ago, nine months ago, that we will win two Grand Slams each,” Nadal said, “but here we are. I just can say thanks to life.”
Of the prospect of catching Federer, he said, “I really never thought much about that. I just do my way, he does his way, and let’s see when we finish.”
Three Grand Slams apart, he said, “is a big difference,” but he also said, “I wake up every morning with the passion to go on the court and to improve things.”
While their stirring Australian Open final began the year, Nadal stood alone among the giants at the end, taking his third U.S. Open title, his first U.S. Open title since 2013 and his first hard-court title of any kind since January 2014 in Qatar.
Eleven months after shutting down his 2016 season with his balky wrist, and a year after going out to Lucas Pouille in the 2016 U.S. Open fourth round, in a fifth-set tiebreaker, Nadal had lent fresh length to his longevity. He had cemented the No. 1 ranking he regained in August after a three-year hiatus just one year after he stood at No. 9. He never had to venture into any fifth set this fortnight, and he romped enough that the three players who did take one set each from him — Taro Daniel, Leonardo Mayer and Juan Martin del Potro — might take slight heart. Nadal combed through players ranked Nos. 85, 121, 59, 64, 53, 28 and 32.
His scrap with Anderson, the 31-year-old South African, did have its inconveniences early on, even if Nadal would lose only 15 points on his serve all match long. He even won all 16 of his net points, just for some extra statistical beauty. With the 6-foot-8 Anderson’s serve as his notorious matter, and with Nadal awaiting returns way back pretty much from Poughkeepsie and capable of viability from there, some early games proved thick. With Anderson serving, there was a six-deuce matter at 1-1, five deuces at 2-2 and one at 3-3 before, right then and there, Anderson contributed a double fault and his 21st unforced error to suffer the first break. The first set took 58 minutes; the others, 39 and 50.
Against one of the greatest returners ever to walk the Earth, Anderson managed 10 aces, a commendable number but not enough to overcome the steep, uphill foe in question. The unforced-errors statistic — 40 to a puny 11 for Nadal — pretty much shouted the doom that hovered over Anderson throughout.
When he said Nadal “never goes away,” and that he “brings that high energy every single point,” and that, “Anytime you leave a ball hanging for him, he’s ready and able to take advantage of it,” Anderson, at 0-5 against Nadal, sounded like many a Nadal opponent these last, long, 13 Grand Slam seasons.
The South African who attended the University of Illinois had had himself a grand tournament in his 34th Grand Slam try, but in the final, he had stood opposite a force still ferocious after all these years, a player in his third Grand Slam final this year and his 23rd Grand Slam final all told, the first having come at age 19.
This all followed upon 2015 and 2016, two years that saw Nadal find just two Grand Slam quarterfinals, “a couple of years without winning Slams and a couple of years with problems,” he said. Even as his uncle and coach since childhood, Toni Nadal, will stop touring, the nephew will carry on, restored again, such a long-standing mainstay that on Sunday, it seemed counterintuitive that, by 16 days, Nadal, of the two finalists, was younger.