Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Novak Djokovic learns how large the gap is between U.S. Open champ Rafael Nadal and rest of field

By Mike Lupica
The Daily News
Tuesday, September 14th 2010, 4:00 AM

Here came Rafael Nadal at the very end, after all the rain and all the waiting and four hard sets against Novak Djokovic. Here came Nadal to remind Djokovic and remind everybody watching that he was one of the great players and great champions any U.S. Open final had ever seen. Here came Nadal off the baseline and toward the net again, toward what should have been a winner for the other guy, Nadal playing this point the way he plays them all, as if it were the biggest point he'd ever played, as if getting one more ball back would make him the champion of everything.

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 13: Rafael Nadal of Spain returns a shot against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during his men's singles final match on day fifteen of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 13, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.(Getty Images)

Djokovic had played against Nadal the way he had on Saturday when he came back against Roger Federer, Federer and his five Opens and his 16 major championships. On this night, Djokovic had gone gone toe-to-toe with the best hitter alive, had even gotten the first set off Nadal that anybody had gotten at this Open, squaring the final at one set all once they resumed playing after all the rain.

Djokovic had just become the No. 2 player in the world. But over the last two sets of this crackling men's final, on the night when Nadal was finally going to win the Open, he had found out how much distance there is between No. 1 and No. 2 in men's tennis when No. 1 is Nadal.

Already in this last game, at 15-0 for Nadal, Djokovic had dropped a sweet shot over the net at Arthur Ashe Stadium, seemed to have won himself a point in the game he needed to win to keep playing. But Nadal ran the ball down on fresh legs, running the way he does for every ball, running like Ray Lewis was chasing him, covering the drop shot and ripping a forehand winner within a few inches of the baseline.

He was coming on at the finish like the 7 train, two points away from the Open at Ashe, from his career Grand Slam, from his ninth major championship.

Still Djokovic stayed in there with him, the way he had stayed in there for most of this match, this match when he and Nadal threw what seemed like 100 mph baseline shots at each other all night long. There have been other lefthanded hitters here, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors right at the top of that list. They never hit the ball as hard as Nadal did Monday night against Djokovic, even when the ball kept coming back.

When it was over, Nadal, a great and gracious champion maybe on his way to being the greatest of them all, said this of Novak Djokovic:

"You are a great player and you are going to win this trophy very soon."

Just not Monday night.

Not against Nadal, who dominates his sport right now, the French and Wimbledon and the Open in the same year, the way Tiger Woods used to dominate golf. Djokovic came back to 30-all when it was 5-2 against him in the last game of the match. Still believing that when you had hit the way he had hit against Nadal, not backed up all night, there had to be a way to keep playing.

They played another long point and Nadal hit one that touched the top of the net, dropped on Djokovic's side. Djokovic pushed it back, the ball hitting like a pillow hitting a sofa. But again here came Nadal. Running, playing, like they were just getting started. Playing every point like match point. Playing, as Connors once said to me, like he's broke. Nadal came running again in the fourth set of the Open and covered the ball and spit another winner that landed on the back line and now, at last, it was match point for him at Ashe.

Then Djokovic hit one last groundstroke wide. It was 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 for Nadal. Nadal was on his back, because the only one who lays him out when he is healthy is himself. He was on his back on the court at Ashe and then he rolled over and finally jumped to his feet. Djokovic was on Nadal's side of the net by then. The two of them embraced.

"It was more than what I dreamed," Nadal would say a few minutes later.

Djokovic said: "He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever, my opinion."

Of course this was a Jets night around here. The Yankees and Rays were playing in Florida for first place. This match had started on CBS and ended up on ESPN2 because the dopes who commissioned Ashe back in the '90s built the worst stadium in tennis and maybe sports, one that doesn't have a roof to save the Open from rain and won't ever have one the way it is built. So rain postponed Nadal-Djokovic on Sunday and delayed it again Monday night. And the USTA should tear the thing down and start over.

Still: Over the last two sets Nadal played as well as anybody ever played at Ashe. Or over at Louis Armstrong Stadium, a hundred times the theater that Ashe is. It was as if Nadal got angry after Djokovic evened the match, dialed up his game and his will at the same time. Djokovic tried mightily, but did not have the stick to stay with him. Federer wouldn't have had enough. If Nadal didn't have to pull out of the Australian Open in January, he would have become the first man since Rod Laver to win the Grand Slam.

From the start of the third set on, right through those balls he ran down in the last game, nobody ever hit harder than Nadal did on the night when he finally won the U.S. Open. Nobody ever hit like this or ran like this in an Open final that I ever saw, all the way back to when Connors was young at Forest Hills. Ran until there were no balls to get back at the Open.

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