NEW YORK, Sept 10 (Reuters) - Hitting harder and moving more explosively than ever, Rafa Nadal raised the bar of men’s tennis another notch during his defeat of Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final on Monday.
In the short term, it now looks just a matter of time before the Mallorcan powerhouse returns to the top of the world rankings; more significantly, Roger Federer’s record of 17 grand slam titles is no longer a speck on the horizon.
Nadal’s 6-2 3-6 6-4 6-1 victory over Djokovic at Flushing Meadow took the 27-year-old’s major haul to 13 and the nature of it suggested he is again set to take a stranglehold at the top of the men’s game.
Djokovic threw everything at Nadal during the latest enthralling chapter in their rivalry and for a while during the third set he looked to have gained the upper hand only for Nadal to steam past him and claim a second U.S. crown.
Who would have thought it at the start of the year?
When Lukas Rosol sent Nadal’s tennis world spinning off its axis at Wimbledon in June last year, it seemed the wear and tear on the Spaniard’s knees had finally caught up with him and he did not hit a ball in anger for seven months.
Yet since re-emerging at a low-key claycourt tournament in Chile in February, the Spaniard has been virtually unstoppable, winning 10 titles, including an eighth French Open, and proving that his knees can withstand the pounding of hardcourt tennis.
When he returned from his injury lay-off it seemed reasonable to assume his main focus would be the French Open.
Yet Nadal, who once used to look slightly less menacing on faster hardcourts, has added spice to his serve and extra speed to his forehand to turn himself into the concrete king with Masters titles in Indian Wells, Montreal and Cincinnati before his rampage in New York.
Worryingly for his rivals, Nadal’s fabled defensive skills have been embellished with more firepower.
His forehand has lost a little of the loopy topspin that used to wear down opponents and a slightly flatter, more net-hugging adaptation has been in evidence which enables him to attack much earlier in rallies.
The left-handed serve has been a revelation too.
Nadal held 88 consecutive service games at the U.S. Open before the semi-final in which Frenchman Richard Gasquet managed one break of a delivery that, while not as fast as some, is deadly accurate and heavy with spin.
Djokovic did break it three times but an irresistible Nadal always had an answer as he roared to victory.
As ever, Nadal refused to get drawn into the numbers game after his latest career milestone, saying simply that 13 was already “more than I ever dreamed of”, but those who have watched his latest comeback are more emphatic.
“If he stays healthy, he can easily win four or five more slams, no question about it. To me, he’s better than ever,” seven-times grand-slam champion John McEnroe told the BBC.
“It’s amazing how badly he wants it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Let’s hope he stays healthy because it will be great for our sport.”
McEnroe’s sentiments were echoed by another former U.S. Open champion, Boris Becker.
“Nadal has performed at an unbelievably consistent level throughout the year, every match he has played he’s been close to perfection,” the German told Sky Sports.
“I thought Roger’s record would never be broken but the man from Spain is getting awfully close. The more he plays and puts on shows like tonight, the closer he’s going to get. If Nadal stays healthy until he’s 30 he’s going to get to 17.”
Peerless on clay, Nadal, fitness providing, could feasibly take his French Open haul to 10 or more and after his showing on hardcourts this year he could have several more title runs in Australia and New York.
Wimbledon is problematic, coming so soon after the claycourt season, as it proved this year when he lost in the opening round to Belgian Steve Darcis.
Few who witnessed his display against Djokovic will be surprised if this time next year, Nadal has already surpassed Pete Sampras’s 14 majors and is closing in on Federer. (Writing by Martyn Herman in London; Editing by Clare Fallon)