Yes, Rafael Nadal was dealt a favorable hand when injuries prevented Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and other top-20 players from competing in the U.S. Open, and yes, Nadal's hand improved considerably when Roger Federer bowed out in the quarterfinals and postponed the duo's first-ever meeting at Flushing Meadows.
But while circumstances dictated that Nadal didn't have to face a single top-20 player he still had to play out that hand, and he did it masterfully. Completing a comeback from two injury-marred seasons, Nadal mowed down 28th-seeded Kevin Anderson of South Africa 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 at Arthur Ashe Stadium to win his 16th Grand Slam singles title. That it was his first Slam win since 2013 in the city that loves him like a native son made it all the sweeter.
"There is no better way to finish the Grand Slam season for me after a very emotional season in all aspects," said Nadal, who split the four Slams with Federer by winning at the French Open and here, while Federer won the Australian Open and at Wimbledon. "So very happy the way that I played, happy the way that I managed the pressure, and the way I was competing during the whole event. Playing better or worse, the competitive spirit has been there in a very positive way all the time."
Nadal's dominance on Sunday against Anderson, a first-time Grand Slam finalist, was greater than the score indicates.
Nadal — who didn't have to go beyond four sets here — never faced a break point against the 6-foot-8 Anderson, a big server whose most potent weapon was neutralized by his own nerves and by Nadal's persistent returns. Anderson and Nadal are both 31 but Anderson considers Nadal an idol and spoke of watching a teenage Nadal blaze through the pro circuit while Anderson was playing in juniors and at the University of Illinois. Perhaps intimidated by the occasion and the opponent, Anderson committed 40 unforced errors. World No. 1 Nadal committed 11 unforced errors and was 16 for 16 on net points won.
"Rafa made it very difficult for me tonight," Anderson said. "I felt he got a lot of returns back. He varied his position quite a lot. I think he had a pretty good read on my serve and he was getting my serve games and he was holding quite comfortably."
Nadal had two break points in the third game of the first set and two more in the fifth game, but they continued on serve until Nadal converted his fifth break point and took a 4-3 lead after Anderson hit a forehand wide. "That changed the rest of the match," Nadal said, "because if you get to 5-5 in the first set or tiebreak, playing against a big server like him, you are in trouble, no?" Nadal broke again in the ninth game and it was all over except the final details.
It was a thorough victory and it was thoroughly Nadal, a winner here for the first time since 2013.
"I think I played the right match, the match that I have to play," said Nadal, whose highest-seeded opponent here was No. 24 Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. "I put a lot of balls in. I let him play all the time, and that was my goal, no? To try to have long rallies, to try to have long points, because he will try to play short.
"But of course if the ball is going over the net a couple of times helps, because he gets more tired. He's taller. His movements are a little bit worse than my ones. That was the goal for me, no, to take advantage and try to move him."
Anderson's admiration for Nadal increased despite dropping to 0-5 in career matches against his onetime hero. "I have a lot of respect for him as a tennis player. He's a hell of a competitor," Anderson said. "He's one of the best who have played our sport."
Exactly where Nadal ranks among tennis' greatest is a decision he prefers to leave to others. Federer remains the leader in Grand Slam titles with 19, and Nadal said catching or surpassing Federer is not uppermost in his mind. "I just do my way. He does his way. Let's see where we finish, no?" Nadal said.
That won't be for a while, because Nadal has been revitalized by his success this year after two emotionally trying seasons. Although he will no longer have his uncle and longtime coach Toni Nadal beside him on a daily basis — Toni Nadal has said he wants to spend more time with his family and less on the road — Nadal still has the fire to keep going. Easy hand or tricky hand, he's still very much in the game.
"I still have the passion and the love for the game," he said. "I still want to compete and still feel the nerves every time that I go on court…. When some day arrives that I don't feel that nerves or that extra passion for the game that I feel, will be the day to say, 'OK, I do another thing.' "
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