Reporting from New York -- One game defined the U.S. Open men’s final Monday at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The third game of the second set lasted more than 17 minutes and encompassed 27 points. Rafael Nadal was serving to Novak Djokovic, and the tennis played was physically punishing and mentally anguishing. There were lobs and drop shots, double faults and running winners that seemed to touch every sideline.
But the final shot was a massive mistake by Nadal, an overhead that he smashed into the net instead of over it. It gave Djokovic one of his astounding 11 service breaks in the match and was the defining moment of a match filled with many more great strokes than bad.
Djokovic, seeded first and ranked No. 1 in the world, won his fourth major title — and third this year — by beating defending champion and second-seeded Nadal, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1, and then said his new goal was something even more difficult.
Next year, he said, he’d love to win all four majors in the same year. Or at least his first French Open title. “Why not?” he said. “It would be unbelievable to win the French Open. It’s definitely an ambition. But it’s going to take time.”
The 24-year-old Djokovic appeared to be in trouble after he lost the third set and called for a trainer after the first game of the fourth set, to stretch and pull and pound on his aching back.
But after the treatment, Djokovic, from Serbia, played the final games as if pain didn’t matter. And on match point, after making a sign of the cross, Djokovic bounced the ball 10 times, hit a serve and then a forehand winner, a massive thing that left Nadal almost immobile and gave Djokovic his first U.S. Open title.
It was the Serb’s sixth victory in a row over Nadal, it made Djokovic 64-2 this season and it gave him a U.S. Open championship to go with the titles he won earlier in the year at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Nadal told Djokovic on court, “What you did this year is probably impossible to repeat, so well done.”
Nadal said his inability to serve well was a big reason for his loss, but he wouldn’t blame the long injury timeout taken by Djokovic after the first game of the fourth set, just when it seemed Nadal might have seized some momentum.
“It’s not the right moment to find excuses if he stops the match there or if I’m tired,” Nadal said. “I am happy with a lot of things and I’m much happier than the previous matches against him. In other things, I’m not that happy. But in general I think he did great. I had my chances. I really had my chances.”
After Djokovic won the first two sets — the scores appeared decisive, but the 18 games took more than two hours to complete — Djokovic started to become physically vulnerable as he clutched at his back, and he squandered a chance to close out the match serving at 6-5 in the third set.
And it was all Nadal in the tiebreaker. He took a 5-1 advantage and won on his second set point with a forehand return winner.
After Djokovic held serve to open the fourth set, he called for the trainer for a second time. And after that treatment, Djokovic won five of the last six games.
“I had a rib problem and they had to mobilize my back as well and I had some cramps in the leg,” Djokovic said. “But it helped me in the fourth set. I felt the most discomfort and pain with my serve, so I tried to go for more precision than speed and that actually helped me to get into the rally better.”
Nadal said he was more optimistic after this loss than when he was beaten by Djokovic at Wimbledon.
“I go back to Spain more happy today than after the Wimbledon final,” Nadal said, “because after here I think I am on the right way to try to beat him. After Wimbledon I didn’t feel that.”