A year ago, as Andy Murray shrugged off his Grand Slam demons and hoisted his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal sat at home in Majorca, Spain resting his ailing knees. Nadal, who won the U.S. title in 2010 and was a runner up in 2011, withdrew from competitive tennis completely after falling in the second round of Wimbledon a month and a half before the U.S Open.
Even when Nadal finally returned to tennis in the spring of 2013 after a more than eight-month absence, many doubts persisted. For years, Nadal’s aggressive and tenacious play from the baseline had wreaked havoc on his knees. These same knees had caused him problems in 2009 and left him unable to defend his 2008 Wimbledon crown. His 2013-year did not begin as expected, as Nadal lost to 73rd ranked Horacio Zeballos at the Chile Open and further fueled fears of his decline. However, since that defeat, Nadal has lost only twice, winning over 95 percent of his matches including a perfect 22–0 on hard courts. Since a surprise loss to Belgian Steve Darcis in the opening round of Wimbledon, Nadal has been undefeated, capping off a perfect summer by suffocating Novak Djokovic in a 4-set U.S. Open final on Monday.
By winning his second U.S. title Nadal, age 27, won his 13th major and is now only four grand slam titles away from tying Roger Federer for the most in the history of the men’s game. A year ago talk that Nadal could be considered the greatest of all time was laughable. The real question was whether or not he could stay healthy enough to compete with the likes of Federer, Djokovic, and the ascendant Murray. Not only that, but Nadal’s ability to win anything but the French Open, where he has won a record eight times, was in doubt. Nadal answered such questions emphatically in 2013. As long as the Spaniard stays healthy (which is still a huge question mark) he could easily keep playing tennis for another four or five years. If that is the case he should capture three more French Open titles at minimum. If his knees hold up, he should be able to seriously contend for two other grand slams in the next five years and that could put his career total at eighteen, one more than Federer.
While Nadal’s victory signals reaffirms his place in history, Djokovic’s defeat leaves him at a career crossroads. In 2011, the Serb dominated tennis and it seemed his time was beginning following the era of Federer and Nadal. However, while he reached his fourth U.S. final in a row and fifth in seven years, he lost for the fourth time. Over the past two years Djokovic has reached six finals but captured only two Grand Slams to bring his career total to six. In 2011 it seemed as though he were a lock for double-digit majors, but now that estimate seems lofty. As Murray continues to emerge (winning two of the last three Grand Slam finals he has played versus Djokovic) and Nadal returns to his pre-2012 form, Djokovic’s place amongst the upper echelon is uncertain.
During the three hour, nineteen minute match Djokovic looked a quarter-step slow, physically weary, and less intense than Nadal.
In the opening two sets Djokovic seemed to be a mix of the player that lost to Nadal at Arthur Ashe in 2010 and the player who beat him in 2011. The opening set on Monday took the part of their 2010 final in which Djokovic, physically weak from his semi-final win against Federer, did not have the ability to keep up with Nadal’s pounding shots from the baseline (interestingly enough, in 2013 Djokovic also had to go five sets in the semis, this time against Stanislas Wawrinka). In the second set though, Djokovic turned the tables on Nadal and the 2013 final began to look like their 2011 match in which Djokovic dictated from the baseline and overpowered Nadal. The turning point in the match came in the ninth game of the third set when Nadal rallied from down love–40 to take a 5–4 lead. In the next game Nadal broke Djokovic to take the set and the match was effectively over.
During the post match award ceremony Djokovic thanked the crowd and acknowledge the brilliance of Nadal saying, “ … He was too good. He definitely deserved to win this match and this trophy.” However, the smiles Djokovic used to offer during such ceremonies are gone. He carried the sullen face of a man who realizes that while the computers still rank him number one, it is clear to everyone including himself that for 2013 Nadal was the best player in the world.