US Open: The renaissance of Rafa

All the superlatives heaped on Roger Federer for the past 15 years — maestro, magician, genius — applied just as accurately to Rafael Nadal — not the “grinder” label he so often gets. Championship point of his decisive 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Kevin Anderson reminded us of that. Serving and volleying, the versatile Spaniard knifed a crosscourt backhand volley into the open court for a winner. Game, set, and 16th Grand Slam title.

Rafael Nadal in action at the US Open final against Kevin Anderson of South Africa.   -  AFP

At the start of this wildly unpredictable tennis year, who knew Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, written off by so many “experts,” would split up the four majors, renew their historic rivalry, and put the emergence of potential new stars on hold? By the end of the final major at Flushing Meadows, no one questioned their physical or mental strength, athleticism, or shotmaking.

In fact, Rafa so thoroughly outclassed seven opponents at the US Open that former champion John McEnroe raved, “Arguably, Nadal is better than ever. What an amazing year this has been!”

Read: US Open men's final review

All the superlatives heaped on Roger Federer for the past 15 years — maestro, magician, genius — applied just as accurately to Nadal — not the “grinder” label he so often gets.

Championship point of his decisive 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Kevin Anderson reminded us of that. Serving and volleying, the versatile Spaniard knifed a crosscourt backhand volley into the open court for a winner. Game, set, and 16th Grand Slam title.

Read: Stephen stuns Keys in improbable final

Volleying requires the most athletic talent of any shot in tennis, and Nadal won all 16 points at net against Anderson. Whether he returned 6’8” Anderson’s booming serve from close to the baseline or almost 20 feet behind it near the line judges, he found ways to break serve four times against the South African, who had lost only five of his 109 service games going into the final. Conversely, Nadal lost just 15 points in his 14 service games, never faced a break point, and won an astounding 70% of his second serve points.

Nadal’s brilliance was further evidenced by his 30 winners, and his consistency by his scant 11 unforced errors. His racket artistry in both creating and defusing power was matched by his breathtaking speed. As Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain, put it, “Not only is Rafa so quick to defend, but he’s so quick to attack.”

Also read: Nadal still sees 'big difference' to Federer's major haul

No. 28-seeded Anderson, the lowest-ranked US Open finalist in history, hardly exuded confidence going into his first major final. In his pre-match mini-interview before entering the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, he offered, “I’m going to have to play helluva [good] tennis.” But the 80-1 pre-tournament longshot simply did not have the speed, groundstrokes, or volleys to compete with the far more talented and experienced Nadal, contesting his 23rd major final.

As Anderson’s coach, Neville Godwin, told the Associated Press, “He’s completely surpassed any expectations he may have had.” That’s probably why the 31-year-old Anderson celebrated so effusively by climbing up the stands to his Player’s Box after winning his four-set semifinal against No. 12 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, something normally done only by tournament winners.

Anderson deserves plenty of credit even though he was lucky enough to prevail in the much weaker half of a draw, already diminished by the absence of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Raonic due to injuries. Anderson was bedeviled by injuries himself last year, the most serious a labrium tear. Fortunately, with four months of rehab he was able to avoid hip surgery.

Anderson became the tallest player ever in a major final and the first South African finalist since Kevin Curren lost the 1984 Australian Open final to Mats Wilander. A sports psychologist convinced the low-key Anderson to show more emotion with fist pumps and shouts of “C’mon!” That fired-up spirit, an improved backhand, and a total commitment to power tennis helped him score another impressive four-set win, over No. 17 seed Sam Querrey in the quarters.

Much of the pre-tournament excitement focused on a potential duel between betting co-favorites Federer (7-4) and Nadal (7-2) in the semifinals in the stronger half of the draw. Strangely, the two giants of our sport had never faced each other at the Open. In Federer’s quarter, the popular Juan Martin del Potro, despite being sick and nearly retiring after the second set, escaped two match points to upset No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4. Darren Cahill, the authoritative ESPN analyst, called it “the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen. If he didn’t have that crowd support on Grandstand, I’m 99 percent sure Del Potro would have stopped.”

Against Federer, a chorus of “Ole, ole, ole” from fiercely partisan Argentines again energized Del Potro, who had upset Federer in the 2009 US Open final for his only Grand Slam title. Four wrist surgeries sharply reduced the power on his backhand — averaging only 66 mph compared to 81 mph in 2009 — and forced him to slice one-handers sometimes. Despite that, 24th-seeded Delpo fought off four set points in the pivotal tiebreaker to once again knock out Federer, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4. Federer often looked tentative and allowed the Argentine’s massive forehand to dictate the majority of the points.

“I feel I have no place in the semis, and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest,” said a gracious Federer afterward.

A better chance, maybe. But still not much of a chance, as it turned out. In the first set, Nadal failed to expose Del Potro’s much weaker backhand by first hitting to his fearsome forehand. Nadal quickly corrected this tactical error, hitting 40% there instead of only 20%, and overwhelmed Delpo in the second set, 25 to 8 points. Forced to run much more, the exhausted Argentine could put up little resistance and Nadal crushed him 5-7, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.

It marked Nadal’s 15th straight Grand Slam semifinal win since Del Potro beat him on the same court eight years earlier. “After the first set, you can’t play any better than that,” marveled John McEnroe. “He was awesome.”

Like Del Potro, Anderson could not outlast Nadal. He would have to outblast him. But just as heavy-hitting Stan Wawrinka found out in the equally lopsided French Open final, that seldom happens nowadays.

Ruthless and relentless, the revamped Rafa has hit his forehand deeper and 3 mph faster— 76 mph to 73 — on average this year than when he won his first US Open in 2010 and his second serve 8 mph faster — 95 mph to 87.

Put the two stats together and you get another telling stat: Nadal hit a forehand 83% of the time for his first shot after he served against Anderson. That Forehand Factor immediately put Anderson on the defensive, a losing position. During Nadal’s slump-ridden 2014-2015, his potent forehand was his first post-serve shot only 69% of the time.

If all that weaponry weren’t enough, Nadal’s ferocity is intimidating. “He’s the best competitor we’ve seen in men’s tennis,” avers former No. 1 Jim Courier. “No one loves competing more than Rafael Nadal.”

That competitiveness, that killer instinct, was taught to Rafa at a young age by his Uncle Toni, a strict but loving taskmaster. Rafa recently called Toni “the most important person in my life.” Toni revealed that after this US Open he would no longer travel to tournaments as Rafa’s coach, instead devoting his time and energy to the new Nadal tennis academy in Mallorca. Carlos Moya, a former No. 1 and Rafa’s longtime friend, will assume the lead coaching role.

Though Nadal enjoys a big lead, 9,365 to 7,505, over Federer in the ATP Points Race and will likely finish the year ranked No. 1, Federer can’t be counted out. He’s won the season-ending ATP Finals six times and Nadal never has.

Federer, the current consensus “greatest of all time” (GOAT), and Nadal, the consummate competitor, have a bigger fish to fry come January. Both legends yearn to add another Australian Open title to their resumes. Federer has 19 Grand Slam titles. Nadal has 16, but is nearly five years younger than Federer. Time is on his side in the GOAT competition.

With Nadal leading 3-1 in the deciding set of their riveting 2017 Australian final, Federer stunningly reeled off the last five games with some highlight reel shots.

Nadal has revenge on his mind.

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