WASHINGTON, September 11, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
Throughout this U.S. Open fortnight, both World No. 1 Rafael Nadal and first-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson worked toward a common goal: to be the one standing alone at the end basking in the glory as the 2017 U.S. Open men’s singles champion.
On Sunday, in front of another packed house inside Arthur Ashe Stadium with the roof open on this special and sunny, late-summer afternoon, Nadal taught a master class in front of more than 22,000 fans with the 28th-seeded Anderson as his chief pupil. The Spaniard won convincingly, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, to win his third U.S. Open title – and first since 2013 – and it was his 16th Grand Slam singles crown in what continues to be a truly remarkable career.
By winning, the top-seeded Nadal became one of only six players during the Open era (since 1968) to win at least three U.S. Open men’s singles championships. He joined the company of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors, who have five each; John McEnroe, who has four; and Ivan Lendl, who has three.
Now, after securing Grand Slam No. 16, his first title in a hard court tournament since January 2014 – which moved Nadal to within three of Roger Federer’s 19 career Grand Slam titles – it’s only natural to ask: How many more Grand Slams can he win? Only time will tell, but it’s certain that Nadal has the drive and determination to keep fighting.
Following a couple of forgettable years in 2015 and 2016, Nadal has rebounded extraordinarily well, winning five titles and achieving a 56-9 win-loss record – plus, he captured two Grand Slams out of four in 2017 (Roland Garros and the U.S. Open) with the others going to his 36-year-old rival Federer (Australian Open and Wimbledon). And, he continues to bring so many excellent qualities to the tennis’s biggest stages.
While Nadal and Anderson, both 31, arrived at Sunday’s final by taking different paths, each represented the spirit of true grit and determination. For the top-seeded Nadal, he expected to be there, chasing after his third U.S. Open men’s singles title in his 23rd Grand Slam final. Although he lost a few sets along the way during the earlier rounds – all long since forgotten – he passed all of his tests. Meanwhile, Anderson was the lowest-seeded man at No. 28 ever to reach the U.S. Open final, and ranked No. 32, also the lowest-ranked man to make the final since the ATP began computer rankings in 1973. Definitely, they were tough odds for the South African to overcome during his fifth career head-to-head meeting against Nadal.
As they readied to go on court, in their respective pre-match interviews, Nadal described Anderson as “a tough opponent I need to be ready for.” Anderson countered by saying: “If you let him control the court, it’s going to be very difficult.”
As it happened, Anderson was correct in his assessment. Nadal did control the court throughout the duration of their two hour and 27 minute match that started under comfortable conditions with a 73º F (22.8º C) temperature and little wind. The first six games of the opening set were characterized by many long rallies that stretched into some very long games. Anderson played 13 deuces during his first four services games alone. However, the pressure continued mounting against him, and on the fifth break-point opportunity, Nadal broke the South African to go ahead 4-3. Then, after a quick hold, he broke again with a nifty drop volley to win the set in 58 minutes.
Although Anderson hit 10 more winners than Nadal did, he committed 15 more unforced errors than Rafa. As Sports Illustrated executive editor and Tennis Channel analyst Jon Wertheim tweeted, “Rafa at his Rafa-est, takes first set. …” And, in doing so, it was widely noted that Nadal had won 23 straight Grand Slam matches when winning the first set – including 12-1 in major finals. This telling statistic proved to be a pretty good portend of things to come his way.
As Anderson sat down during the changeover following the completion of the first set, he was observed re-griping his racquet. It was time for him to reset, too. The mental and physical pressure Nadal applied toward him, stroke after stroke, had become painfully evident.
Early in the second set, Anderson held for 1-1, his first hold without being taken to deuce. Soon, though, Nadal owned a two-sets-to-zero lead as he won the second set by an identical 6-3 score in just 39 minutes. Through his first nine service games, Nadal had lost just seven points. By then, it seemed a matter of time before the King of Clay would be anointed Hero of the Hard Courts. Time for ESPN to cue up Uncle Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and longtime coach, for one last Grand Slam interview from his seat in Rafa’s box. “I’m feeling very good, very happy since it’s my last time here,” said a cheerful Uncle Toni.
Soon, the match would be over. When it was, in looking back at the final match statistics, there were some very telling results: Nadal never faced a break point; Anderson, who fired the most service aces during the tournament was held to just 10; Rafa won 84% (38 of 45) of his first-serve points, broke Anderson four times, hit 30 winners while committing just 11 unforced errors, and was a perfect 16-for-16 in net points won. He outpointed Anderson 102-78. It was a dominating performance.
During the trophy presentation and on-court, post-match interview, Anderson handled his defeat graciously. He said all the right things, and in a sincere tone of voice. “I congratulate Rafa,” said Anderson. Turning to him, he said, “You are the greatest ambassador to our sport.” He really meant it.
Before 2017, Anderson had never advanced beyond the third round in the U.S. Open. But, he rebounded nicely from a hip injury that caused him to miss the Australian Open. In other Grand Slams before the U.S. Open, he reached the Round of 16 at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. With Anderson’s confidence not to mention his ranking on the rise this summer, reaching the final at the U.S. Open represented his second hard court final to go along with one earlier this summer at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. In the lead up to Sunday, he beat unseeded Paolo Lorenzi in the Round of 16, No. 17 seed Sam Querrey in the quarterfinals and No. 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta in the semifinals, all four setters.
Anderson told ESPN’s Chris McKendry during the on-court interview that he looks forward to coming back next year, building upon this season’s achievements. “I can take away a lot of positives. It was a tough match today against a pretty good opponent, but I’m pleased how everything turned out these two weeks,” he said.
Then, it was Nadal’s turn to step forward and receive both his winner’s trophy and prize money, and to address the appreciative crowd. He said, “It’s very special to win. I say congrats to Kevin. You came back better than ever from your injuries.”
Nadal called 2017 an “unbelievable year.” He said, “Winning here is one of the events that brings me high energy. It makes me very happy.” Then, McKendry asked Nadal what lesson he would take away from being coached for so many years by his Uncle Toni. “I can’t thank him enough for all the things he did for me. He pushed me all the time and motivated me. He’s the most important person in my life,” said Rafa.
Finally, Nadal was given the opportunity to address his fans in his native Spanish language. He kept it simple, but showed much sincerity. Smiling to the crowd, he said, “Gracias todo el mundo!” Translated, it means “Thank you world!”
Looking back, Wertheim summed up the feelings of many when he tweeted, “We didn’t get Federer-Nadal at the U.S. Open, but if Rafa at his best – healthy, awash in confidence – is the consolation prize, sign us up.”
News and noteworthy: Among the many dignitaries at Arthur Ashe Stadium watching the men’s singles final were: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, pro golfer Tiger Woods, model Christie Brinkley, and singer/entertainer Tony Bennett.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.