Steve Flink: Nadal Secures No. 16 in Style

Flushing Meadows, New York— Not long after Rafael Nadal had secured his third U.S. Open title and a sixteenth major simultaneously, he sat in his chair by the side of the court while images of him from all of his triumphs at the Grand Slam events played out on the big screens above. The video ran chronologically, displaying footage of the Spaniard from all phases of his career—as a teenager triumphing at Roland Garros for the first time, across his twenties at all of the most prominent venues, and right on into his thirties, concluding with his victory today over Kevin Anderson in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Nadal sat there watching along with everyone else, and suddenly there he was, flashing a quiet smile for the fans, realizing that they were applauding him unabashedly in deep appreciation of what he had done not simply in this last major of 2017 but throughout a storied career. Nadal heard the applause building and saw his image on those large screens at the top of the arena. The fans could read his lips as he said, "Thank you very much." He had done it again at a time of consequence, taking his second major title of an outstanding season, bouncing back significantly from a summer slump, overcoming a frustrating first three rounds at the Open before turning the corner and finding not only his game but also rediscovering the incomparable mindset that made him who he is.

The Spaniard took apart the No. 28 seed with ruthless efficiency and growing intensity, picking apart the 6'8" South African comprehensively. The quality of his returns in this contest—especially over the first two sets—was astounding. Nadal nearly always stood way back behind the baseline and not far in front of the side linesmen, looking to give himself time to pick up Anderson's thunderbolts, knowing how crucial it would be to not allow the big fellow to win many free points. Anderson was averaging 126 MPH on his first serve but Nadal's propensity to get those deliveries back and keep his returns deep was extraordinary. Only 34% of Anderson's serves went unreturned by the perspicacious Spaniard. Remarkably, Nadal released more serves that Anderson could not get back in play (38%), and the 31-year-old lefty never faced a break point. In fact, Nadal won 38 of 45 first serve points (84%) and 19 of 27 on his second serve (70%). Moreover, he served 14 games and lost only 15 points on his serve.

The fact of the matter is this: Nadal quite simply raised his game and improved his form in every match from the third round on. It started with his turnaround against Leonardo Mayer in the third round. After losing a tie-break in the first set and squandering break points galore, Nadal broke for 4-3 in the second set and never looked back, finding the lines and opening the court with renewed conviction the rest of the way. He then crushed Alexandr Dolgopolov in straight sets, obliterated Andrey Rublev in straight sets as well, and then came from behind ferociously to oust Juan Martin del Potro in four dazzling sets. He was getting better and better with every performance, but he saved his best for last in my view.

Anderson was obstinate in the first set despite constant difficulties on his serve. He put 60% of his first serves in but Nadal's ability to read those deliveries was uncanny. Taken to deuce in the opening game of the match, Anderson held on with tenacity and temerity, swinging his first serve out wide in the deuce court to elicit and errant backhand return from Nadal, and producing a 128 MPH ace for 1-0. Despite missing five straight first serves, Nadal held at 15 for 1-1, and went right back to work. The South African was taken to deuce no fewer than six times in the third game, fending off two break points before tenuously holding on. Anderson forced Nadal into an error off the forehand on the first break point, and saved the second with a wide serve that set up a forehand winner.

Although Anderson managed to hold on, he was already in jeopardy. Nadal held at love for 2-2, and now Anderson endured a five deuce game on his delivery, erasing two more break points against him. Nadal made one of his few glaring errors on the first one, sending a high trajectory forehand return long off a second serve. Anderson followed with a double fault but aced his way out of the second break point. A well-executed forehand volley winner eventually enabled Anderson to hold for 3-2. He had served 42 points in three service games, saving four break points in that span. But that inordinate amount of work had clearly drained Anderson considerably. He knew he was living precariously by struggling to that degree.

And so did Nadal. Down 15-30 at 2-3, he swiftly collected the next two points and held at 30 with an impeccable serve-and-volley combination, sending a first serve wide in the ad court, punching his first volley into the open court. He was level at 3-3. Anderson led 40-30 in the seventh game but Nadal's stinging backhand crosscourt drew an error off the forehand from his opponent. A double fault from Anderson gave Nadal another break point, and this one he converted. His backhand return was short, but Anderson missed his forehand inside in approach. Nadal at last had the break. He held at 15 for 5-3. Anderson again led 40-30 on his serve in the ninth game. His first serve wide to Nadal's forehand came in at 125 MPH but Nadal's return was hit crisply yet relatively short. Anderson's backhand down the line approach was first rate, but Nadal was unimpressed, driving a backhand crosscourt passing shot cleanly out of reach. A heavily looped Nadal forehand return down the middle gave him set point, and he sealed it by walloping a forehand down the line, moving forward, and making an elegant drop volley winner.

Nadal had captured four games in a row to seal the set 6-3. That 58 minute period essentially ruined Anderson. I believe his serve ranks among the top five in the sport, but Nadal was giving him extraordinary cause for consternation. Anderson was under siege every time it was his turn to serve and despite all of his escapes up until the middle of the set, he was broken twice at the end. That had to be demoralizing.

Nadal promptly held at love to open the second set, but now Anderson finally had an easy hold, moving to 1-1 at the cost of only one point. Both players held easily to make it 2-2, but now Nadal knew it was time to make his presence known with even deeper intensity, and he did just that. The Spaniard held at love for 3-2, starting off that game with an ace. He did not miss a first serve. Nadal burst into a brilliant stretch in the sixth game, using a forehand down the line to lead the way toward an overhead winner, passing Anderson clearly off the forehand.

Anderson managed to reach 15-30, but a deep return of serve from Nadal and a follow up forehand that was hit with authority was too much for the No. 28 seed, who netted a backhand. Anderson got back to 30-40, but he would not escape. Nadal came forward forcefully, punched one volley, closed in tighter on net, and sent a second volley deep down the middle with good depth. Anderson went crosscourt with his passing shot but Nadal put away a high volley emphatically.

With that flourish, Nadal had the break for 4-2, and held swiftly at 15 for 5-2. Anderson held in the eighth game but Nadal proceeded to close out the set dynamically, holding at love without missing a first serve, closing that game with a clean winner off the forehand, playing with absolute certainty. Nadal had taken the set 6-3, and was up two sets to love. His second set display was nothing short of breathtaking.

Anderson was ahead 40-30 in the first game of the third and final set, but another deep return from Nadal compromised the South African. Anderson did not come close with an inside in forehand. Nadal now used a backhand slice to induce an error from a weary Anderson. It was break point for Nadal. His return was short but Anderson was apprehensive, directing a forehand approach shot long. Nadal had the immediate break for 1-0. He held at 15 for 2-0. After Anderson had held in the third game, Nadal raced to 40-0 in the fourth game but double faulted and made a rare forehand unforced error. Nerves were creeping in on Nadal at this stage, but he played the next point with stubbornness and coaxed an error from Anderson with a looping shot designed for safety. He thus advanced to 3-1.

Nadal recognized that he was closing in on the title, and so, too, did Anderson. Both players dug in deeply and kept holding serve. Nadal was not returning quite as well by now and Anderson improved his location on his delivery. Anderson held at love in the fifth game but Nadal answered with a hold at 30 for 4-2, closing that game with a well placed wide serve at 98 MPH that drew an errant backhand return from Anderson. Anderson remained a professional through and through, refusing to fold, trying to spur himself on, looking for any opportunity that might present itself. He held in the seventh game but Nadal did not concede a point on his way to a 5-3 lead.

Anderson held at 15 for 4-5 with an ace released at 133 MPH down the T, and so Nadal found himself one game away from winning a title that he had not taken for four long years. Serving for the match at 5-4, he reached 30-15 but Anderson leaped for a beautifully played high backhand volley winner. Nadal advanced to 40-30 and his first match point but a scorching crosscourt backhand return from Anderson was too much for Nadal, who sent a forehand into the net. The tension was palpable now. For the only time in the entire match, Nadal had been stretched to deuce on his serve. Yet he did not shy away from the challenge. His first serve was clocked at 117 MPH out wide to the Anderson forehand, and the big man hardly touched it. Here was a second match point for the Spaniard. He did not waste it. Nadal sliced a first serve wide at 100 MPH, followed it in, and punched a backhand volley crosscourt into a wide open space. The title belonged to him. He was simply not the same player who started the tournament so tentatively. In the final against Anderson, he made only 11 unforced errors while Anderson had 40. In turn, the Spaniard uncorked 30 winners, only two less than Anderson.

And so Nadal has raised his record to 16-7 in major finals. He now holds a significant lead over Roger Federer in the Race to London. Nadal has amassed 9365 points while Federer stands at 7505. We can be certain that Nadal will make a serious effort to finish the year at No. 1, something he has not done since 2013. Remarkably, he and Federer have split the four majors in 2017. That means that Federer has raised his total of Grand Slam titles to 19 while Nadal has lifted his tally to 16. My feeling is that he could catch Federer if the Swiss Maestro does not win any more majors. The 2018 season will be critical for both players. Nadal needs to close that gap by winning at least two Grand Slam championships next year without Federer taking any more. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, it is time for us all to celebrate the durability, determination and unique characteristics of Rafael Nadal. He had not won any majors coming into the 2017 campaign since the 2014 French Open. After disconcerting seasons in 2015 and 2016 that were riddled with injuries and insecurities, he has had a banner year in 2017. As he said after eclipsing Anderson, "It's been a great two weeks, with an increasing level of tennis and increasing level of confidence during that two weeks. I have the trophy with me again here in New York. There is no better way to finish the Grand Slam season for me after a very emotional season in all aspects. So, very happy with the way I played, happy the way I managed the pressure, and the way that I was competing the whole event. Playing better or worse, the competitive spirit have been there in a positive way all the time."

Nadal had not won a hard court title since Doha at the start of 2014. But he downplayed the significance of that versus the satisfaction of winning another U.S. Open. As he put it, "For me it is important because it is the U.S. Open, more than if it is on hard courts. Doesn't matter the surface. I win one of the most important events of the year."

The view here is that this critical title run in New York will carry Nadal into the autumn and through next year in the best possible frame of mind. He may have celebrated his finest fortnight of the year at Roland Garros, but his achievement here in New York was probably more rewarding. Rafael Nadal has recaptured much of his old sense of self, and that is the best of news for his admirers.

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