In late January, Rafael Nadal was facing off with Roger Federer for the first Grand Slam title of the year. A win would have put Nadal within two Majors of matching Federer’s all-time total. At the time, the Swiss had won 17, while the Spaniard had 14. Nadal has always dominated the head-to-head against Federer, so it was no surprise that the Mallorcan came in as the favorite. Instead, Federer came away with the win and had seemingly cemented his status as the all-time men’s Grand Slam winner–there was no way that Nadal would catch up to 18.
Then the French Open came this year, and the Spaniard earned “La Decima,” cutting Federer’s lead back to three. After Federer won his eighth Wimbledon, though, there was again a feeling that the Swiss once again had an insurmountable lead.
For what seems like the millionth time in his career, though, Rafael Nadal is here to remind us that he is never out of it, ever. As has happened so often throughout their careers, anything Federer can do, Nadal can do as well. The Spaniard has won more Slams while not ranked #1 in the World than he has while holding the top billing. He was World #1 coming into this tournament, but he was certainly discounted as one of the favorites. After all, his last hard court title was in Doha back in 2014. Since then, he has only appeared in nine hard court finals, and he lost his last eight.
In this final, Nadal played an incredible tactical match. Huge servers often bother Nadal, but he found a way to not be troubled by Anderson at all. He stood way back on return (though he came in a few times to change things up) and just brutalized Anderson from the baseline. The tall South African was challenged on serve from the outset. He did an amazing job to hold the first three times, but eventually Nadal’s onslaught from the baseline, along with opportunistic charges to the net, was just too much.
Nadal closed out the first set by breaking Anderson twice, and followed that up with early breaks in both the second and third sets. Anderson just had zero response to the Spaniard’s serve. In a serving display that is rarely expected from Nadal, he did not concede a single break point opportunity. Extended battles on the Anderson serve (plus a brief medical timeout late in match) meant that this match ticked over two hours, but in the end it was a routine 63 63 64 victory for the man from Mallorca.
No one saw this title coming even earlier in the tournament. Nadal entered the tournament coming off losses to Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios on similar surfaces during the US Open hard court summer series. Nadal dropped sets early in the tournament to Taro Daniel and Leonardo Mayer.
Conventional wisdom in recent years has suggested that Nadal’s physical game takes so much out of him that he just can’t compete as well in the bigger tournaments later in the year. Additionally, the faster surfaces do not suit his game as well. As such, it wasn’t a serious shock when he lost in Canada and Cincinnati. Nor was it too unbelievable when he dropped those sets early in this tournament.
During the second week, though, the now 16-time Slam champion proved that wisdom wrong. He dismantled Alexandr Dolgopolov and Andrey Rublev. He lost a set to an in-form Juan Martin del Potro, but came back to win the final three sets with no trouble and in dominant fashion. Finally, he was untouchable in this final against Anderson, who just had no answers for anything the Spaniard could throw at him.
Now, the two all-time greats will enter 2018 in the same positions they entered 2017. Nadal trails Federer by three Slams, but after this tournament he will be considered a threat at three Majors next year, same as Federer. Additionally, this win will give Nadal a lead of over 1,850 points earned over Federer this year, greatly increasing the Spaniard’s prospects of finishing the year at #1. If he can succeed in this, he will only be one year behind Federer in terms of year-end #1 rankings (four to Federer’s five), though both trail Pete Sampras’ record of six. Conventional wisdom said that Nadal was past the point of ending seasons at #1. Conventional wisdom also said that he could no longer win multiple Slams in a year.
As he has done throughout his career, Nadal spent all of 2017–and the US Open in particular–proving conventional wisdom’s doubts about him wrong. He has a pretty solid hold on the #1 ranking, he has his 16th Grand Slam trophy, and he has once again reminded everyone to never count him out–even off of clay. No one will be doubting Nadal coming into any tournament in 2018, that’s for sure.
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