Rafael Nadal made history last night when he won the U.S. Open title, the lone missing credential on his already sterling résumé. At the tender age of 24, Nadal has completed the Career Slam, which only six other men (including Roger Federer) have done. His victim in the final, Novak Djokovic, put up a valiant fight and pushed the match to four sets. But in the end, there was little Djokovic could do to stop the charging bull from taking the one tournament so many believed was eternally out of reach.
From the very first point, the pace of play was frenetic and physical; the players wasted no time feeling each other out with empty points. Djokovic won the first rally — a crowd-pleaser already — but dropped the first game, and eventually the set. He started the second with guns blazing, however, blasting groundstrokes off both wings and testing Nadal’s legendary defense. And after a two-hour rain delay, from which Djokovic returned practically spring-loaded, he thumped his way to a set point on Nadal’s serve, which he secured with a return so strong and so deep, Nadal merely stabbed at it.
Although the match took a dramatic turn in Djokovic’s favor, Nadal was seeing red. Djokovic admirably staved off countless break points in the third set, but Nadal’s transcendental shot making was eventually too much for the Serb. At one point, Djokovic could only applaud as a particularly stunning backhand cross-court winner on the run soared past him. Nadal took the third set.
At that point, there was a gravitational pull toward the inevitable. Djokovic quickly fell two breaks behind, but it wasn’t until Nadal was serving for the match that he looked as if it finally dawned on him what he was about to accomplish. Somewhat bewildered, he played a few nervous points. But it didn’t matter: He took the game, the set, and the match, the U.S. Open, and the Career Slam. He fell to the ground, clutching his face and head, heaving into the cement. And Djokovic strolled past that dividing barrier that is the net and threw an arm around the champion as he stood to face the crowd.
This was the Slam that, for years, people said Nadal couldn’t master because his style wasn’t suited to fast courts. But he has become so good at tailoring his game to specific opponents and surfaces, with his flatter ball striking, a suddenly galvanized serve, and a full bill of health, he was shockingly untested on his way to his first U.S. Open title. Don’t be surprised if this monumental win at such an early age begins a robust debate about whether Nadal has the potential to eventually knock Federer off the GOAT pedestal that the Swiss only just secured. As if Federer, who dropped to No. 3 after his loss this weekend, didn’t have enough to worry about in the twilight of his career.