The king is dead; long live the king. As Roger Federer left New York on Saturday night, beaten in the semi finals of the US Open, it seemed that an era was drawing to a close. The Greatest Of All Time was not the man he once was.
However, with Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 rain-affected victory over Novak Djokovic in the final, the Spanaird completed his career Grand Slam and proved that he is now unstoppable on all surfaces and in all countries.
The cement courts of New York used to hurt his knees and stymie his plans but now, with a reworked serve and with his injury problems solved – for the moment, at least – he has mastered the hard courts just as he mastered clay and grass.
He won the title for the loss of just one set and over the course of seven matches, he dropped serve just four times (and two of those times were in the final). Only Djokovic managed to make him sweat and work but, even so, it was not enough to stop Nadal. The forehand that had crushed Federer in the semi-finals only bruised Nadal, and then only sometimes. Djokovic was playing his heart out but Nadal was always going to win.
For Nadal, it was a dream come true. On the final point, he fell to the ground and burst into tears. He was sobbing again as he tried to applaud the crowd for their unstinting support. And then, when he finally got his hands on the trophy, he could not stop smiling.
“That’s more than what I dreamt,” he said. “Just to arrive to the final was amazing. To have the trophy in my hand is unbelievable. I think for the first time in my career I played a very, very good match in this tournament. That’s my feeling. I played my best match in the US Open at the most important moment, so I am very, very happy for that, for sure.”
Nadal was only the seventh man to complete the career Grand Slam and, even if he is still seven titles short of Federer’s record of 16, Djokovic thinks that the Spaniard is on his way to true greatness.
“Each year he’s getting better – that’s what’s so frustrating,” Djokovic said. “He’s getting better each time you play him. He’s so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever, in my opinion. He has lots of time to come if he physically holds on the next five, six, seven years.
“He has the game now for each surface, and he has won each major. He has proven to the world that he’s the best in this moment, so there is no question about it.”
Meanwhile, Kim Clijsters was doing what she usually does at the US Open – winning. No one has beaten her at Flushing Meadows since Justine Henin shattered her dream in the 2003 final. Since then, she has only played the event three times due to injury and a two year break to start a family but every time she has been back, she has collected the trophy.
A year ago, she was the talk of the town as she held the trophy aloft in only her third tournament back after coming out of retirement. This time she was back as an established player with a reputation and a title to defend. And defend it she did, walloping Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 6-1 in the final.
Poor Zvonareva was felled by nerves and, despite having demolished Caroline Wozniacki in the semi final with a remarkable display of control and accuracy, she could so nothing right against Clijsters. It was Wimbledon all over again – she had done all the hard work to get to the (and at Wimbledon, she beat Clijsters in the quarter finals) but when she got to the final, she could not make so much as a dent in the champion’s defences.
With no Henin or Serena Williams to face this time – both were sidelined with injuries – Clijsters’s biggest threat was Venus Williams but she was dispatched in three sets in the semi finals.
Clijsters, being one of the nicest people you could hope to meet on the tour, was quick to comfort Zvonareva. She, too, had been through some horrible losses in major finals and she knew the Russian was going through.
“I told her, too, it took me five or six times before I won my first one, and I know exactly how she feels,” Clijsters said. “That was probably one of the most frustrating things in my grand slam losses in the finals: that I wasn’t able to show my best tennis out there. That’s how she was feeling afterwards, as well, is what she told me.”
That said, it is unlikely that Clijsters will be offering any favours to Zvonareva should they meet in another major final – Clijsters appears to have developed the winning habit.