Mallorca’s favourite son marked his return to the tour this year in exemplary fashion with a greatly deserved four sets win against world number one Novak Djokovic.
The record books show a fairly straight forward four sets victory for the Spaniard, however, those who witnessed the match will be able to attest that such a scoreboard does not accurately depict the on court battle that was had, nor sufficiently contextualises the career significance Nadal’s 13th Grand Slam title seemed to have.
Suffering a tear to the patellar tendon in his left knee caused Nadal to miss 7 months of competition and his rehabilitation was a frustratingly prolonged process due to the nature of the injury and the vulnerability of repetitive damage if he rushed back to action too soon.
Despite overcoming Novak Djokovic in a near 5 hour marathon semi in this year’s French Open on his way to claiming a historic 8th title at Roland Garros, fears still lingered as to how much pain Nadal was in fact still playing through and his opening round loss at Wimbledon only reinforced the validity of such concerns.
However, throughout the year Nadal has been working on his technique to avoid unnecessary hyperextension of the knee, limit undue stress on his left tibia and however improbably it may seem, has even improved his speed on court.
Coming into last night’s final Nadal had been in imperious form, despatching his opponents with relative ease and remarkable efficiency, so much so that he became the overwhelming favourite, even when taking on the formidable and ‘Stretch Armstrong-esque’ world number one.
The Spaniard started in explosive form, hitting winners all over the court and relentlessly finding even the most acute of angles against one of the game’s great returners.
The Serbian’s mental frustration was clear to see and spilled into his on court choices, with frequent decisions to approach the net failing to stem the tide of winners from Nadal’s racquet.
Djokovic cast a frustrated figure that was entirely unable to contend with such a ferocious early assault, he repeatedly bemoaned the depth of Nadal’s returns, whilst bewilderedly gazing towards his box at the infallibility of the Spaniard’s game.
Contrastingly, Nadal conveyed a spectre of focus and determination and following two breaks of serve had the first set wrapped up in an efficient 42 minutes worth of play.
In the second set, like any great champion Novak Djokovic demonstrated to the Flushing Meadow’s crowd exactly why he is still world number one with a renewed desire to overcome his opponent and an equally appreciated renewal of his ability to find the lines.
Pushing Nadal back with powerful forehands, Novak began to dictate the play and after around 60 minutes of domination had levelled the game at 1 set all.
The Serbian seemingly had all of the momentum and following a breathtaking 54 shot rally which witnessed both players utilised every inch of the hard blue court, he had broken Nadal’s serve yet again to take a 2-0 lead in the third.
What seemed to be such a pivotal moment in the match surely placed the mental edge with Djokovic, yet Nadal displayed his own mental steel breaking back immediately and forcing the Serbian into the errors that didn’t exist in the previous hour of play.
The Majorcan pounced on this dip in form, putting even more revolutions onto his ferocious forehand and forcing Djokovic deeper and deeper behind the baseline. After a number of exhausting rallies, even the elastic band legs of the Serb couldn’t help the world number one and Nadal took a 2 sets to 1 lead that seemed entirely improbable only 30 minutes earlier.
If the 54 shot rally that Djokovic produced to break Nadal’s serve had been a false dawn in terms of pivotal moments, the Spaniard’s acquisition of the third set certainly did not.
Djokovic was noticeably devastated by losing a set in which he seemed commanding and the world number one finally started to exhibit signs of the mental and physical fatigue many predicted after his epic 5 set semi win over Wawrinka 2 days earlier.
Djokovic’s game changed dramatically as he attempted to force winners far earlier in games than he had before, realising he could no longer afford to waste energy in elongated rallies.
Despite his best efforts, Nadal remained utterly relentless in his game and had soon completed his pursuit of the US Open title by winning the fourth set 6-1 and his following reaction conveyed just how much this win meant to him after a difficult yet hugely successful 2013 season.
Collapsing to the court after the point of victory, Nadal lay with his head in his hands, aggressively sobbing into his shirt, after composing himself to commiserate with his opponent, he fell back into his chair and resumed crying what presumably were tears of both joy and immense relief.
If people had any doubt over the seriousness of the Majorcan’s injury and the impact it had had upon both the player and his camp, Nadal’s reaction served as a conclusive answer.
After wondering whether his knee would ever permit him to again play to the level we all know him capable of, Nadal had come through an exceptionally tough 2013 season winning 2 Grand Slams and beating Djokovic in a number of the most physically demanding matches in record.
Many have been quick to decree that Nadal isn’t simply back to his best, but better than ever and although his movement on court and in game aggression certainly provide positive signs, it is only right that as tennis fans we remain cautious over his future.
One thing that isn’t in doubt however, is that should he remain free from injury and maintain his current form, we will surely witness the continual rise of one of the greatest tennis players in the history of the sport.