RAFAEL Nadal's extraordinary year gets better and better. The 27-year-old Spaniard added the US Open to his remarkable haul of trophies when he beat Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 here to claim the 13th Grand Slam title of his career. Just eight months after there was speculation as to whether he would ever play again because of his troublesome knees, he is even poised to reclaim the world No 1 ranking before the end of the season.
The 60th title of Nadal's career and his tenth of a remarkable year extended his stunning run on hard courts. The king of clay, who has won won six titles on his favourite surface this year, has now won four on hard courts, which have always been his most challenging surface. He has played 22 matches on hard courts this year and won them all.
If Nadal's rivalry with Roger Federer has been the most celebrated of the modern era, his meetings with Djokovic have taken standards of play to a new level. This was a record 37 meeting between the two men as senior professionals - John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl's tally of 36 was the previous highest - and for periods of the match the quality of tennis they provided was arguably better than ever, although Djokovic was unable to sustain that level in the closing stages.
While the contest did not match the epic drama of their 2012 Australian Open final, which Djokovic won after nearly six hours, much of this latest meeting between the Spaniard and the Serb was breath-taking. The two men are both wonderful athletes and they treated the crowd to a succession of stunning rallies, repeatedly retrieving shots which had looked certain to be winners.
Nadal has been at the peak of his powers throughout the north American hard-court campaign and again played with consistent brilliance. Nobody gets out of difficult situations more effectively than the world No 2, who can turn defence into attack with the flick of his wrist.
Djokovic, who was playing in his fourth successive final here, has not always been at his best over the last fortnight, but once again rose to the occasion. There were times in his semi-final victory over Stanislas Wawrinka when Djokovic seemed to have trouble with his timing, but here he struck the ball beautifully and his forehand in particular was an awesome weapon. The Serb returned serve superbly, constantly putting Nadal under pressure with the depth and pace of his shots.
Although this was a sixth successive Monday finish here, at least the tournament ended on time, the final having been moved back in order to give the players a day to recover from their semi-final exertions. Djokovic in particular must have been grateful for the rest, having been kept on court by Wawrinka for more than four hours on Saturday.
There was none of the humidity that had made conditions so difficult earlier in the tournament, but although the temperature was a pleasant 22C at the start there was also a stiff breeze. The wind can swirl around the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium and from the start both players had to be on their toes, ready to make late adjustments in their ball-striking.
The first three games took 17 minutes as both men quickly found their rhythm and set the pattern for some electrifying exchanges. It was not long before Nadal took command. The Spaniard broke to lead 2-1, hitting a big forehand winner after manoeuvring Djokovic out of position, and from 3-2 up won eight points in a row to take a grip on the first set. When Djokovic hit a forehand long on Nadal's first set point after 42 minutes it seemed that we might be heading for a comparatively quick finish, but we should have known better.
If Djokovic had been below-par in the opening set, he came out with all guns blazing in the second. Much of the tennis was breath-taking. Nadal won a thrilling 33-shot rally in the fourth game with a thumping backhand cross-court winner, but even better was to follow two games later. On break point to Djokovic, a rally of 54 strokes which will go down as one of the best in history ended with a standing ovation and the Serb pumping the air in celebration after Nadal had netted a backhand.
It was only the second time in the tournament that Nadal had dropped his serve, but the effort seemed to take its toll on his opponent in the following game as the Spaniard broke back immediately. However, the world No 1 was not to be denied, breaking again to lead 5-3 after chasing down a drop shot to hit a backhand cross-court winner.
Djokovic served out for the second set and immediately took control of the next by breaking for the third time in a row, but just when he seemed to have taken a stranglehold on the match he let Nadal loosen his grip. When Djokovic served at 3-2 and deuce, two careless shots - a forehand wide and a backhand long - allowed Nadal to break back. At 4-4 the Spaniard fought back to hold serve from 0-40 down and in the next game he broke to take the third set, completing the job with a thumping forehand down the line.
With Djokovic fading fast, the end was comparatively swift. Nadal raced into a 3-0 lead in the fourth set, breaking Djokovic at the first attempt with a thumping forehand down the line. When Djokovic served at 1-4, Nadal drove home his advantage as the Serb hit a backhand wide on break point. On match point Djokovic put a forehand in the net, upon which Nadal fell to the floor in celebration. Twelve months ago he was watching the final on television, wondering when he would play again. Now he is champion for a second time.
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