Djokovic completes three-quarter Slam

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia beat defending champion Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 on Monday, earning his first U.S. Open title and his third Grand Slam trophy this year.
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia beat defending champion Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 on Monday, earning his first U.S. Open title and his third Grand Slam trophy this year.

— Novak Djokovic produced a nearly perfect performance to match his nearly perfect season.

Hitting winners from all angles, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic beat defending champion Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 Monday in a final full of lengthy points to earn his first U.S. Open title and third Grand Slam trophy of 2011.

Djokovic improved to 64-2 with 10 tournament titles this year.

“I’ve had an amazing year,” Djokovic said, “and it keeps going.”

Against No. 2 Nadal, Djokovic is 6-0, all in finals — three on hard courts, including Monday; two on clay; and one on grass at Wimbledon. Djokovic also won the Australian Open in January, and is only the sixth man in the 40-plus years of the Open era to win three major titles in a single season.

“Obviously I’m disappointed, but you know what this guy is doing is unbelievable,” Nadal said. Addressing Djokovic, Nadal added, “What you did this year is impossible to repeat, so well done.”

With a couple of months left this season, Djokovic can set his sights on the best win-loss record in the modern era: John McEnroe went 82-3 in 1984, although that only included two Grand Slam titles, because he lost in the French Open final and didn’t enter the Australian Open. Roger Federer was 81-4 in 2005 with two majors, losing twice in the semifinals. Rod Laver (twice) and Don Budge are the only men to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a year.

“He’s confident enough in every moment to keep believing in one more ball, one more ball,” Nadal said. “His forehand is not more painful than before. His backhand is not more painful than before. Serve’s the same.”

Djokovic entered this year with one Grand Slam title, at the 2008 Australian Open. He attributes his surge to a variety of factors, including a vastly improved serve, better fitness and improved self-belief dating to December, when he led Serbia to its first Davis Cup title.

Djokovic began a 43-match winning streak there, a run that ended with a semifinal loss to Federer in the French Open semifinals. The only other blemish on Djokovic’s 2011 record was a loss to Andy Murray in last month’s Cincinnati Masters final, where Djokovic withdrew with a painful shoulder.

Nadal won three major titles himself in 2010, including beating Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, but this rematch was more of a mismatch.

Djokovic quickly turned things around after falling behind 2-0 in each of the first two sets. The only time Djokovic faltered in the final was in the third set, when he showed signs of being bothered by his lower back. His level dipped, and Nadal made one last stand. Djokovic went up 3-2 only to get broken, then served for the match at 6-5 and was broken again when he made two unforced errors, the second at the end of a 21-stroke exchange. But in the fourth set, Djokovic was in control from the start, breaking in the second game with a forehand winner, then cruising from there.

When Djokovic ended it with another forehand winner, he raised his arms, then tossed aside his racket and dropped to the court.

Of all of Djokovic’s skills, the one that separated him the most in the final was his return. He repeatedly sent serves back over the net and at Nadal’s feet, forcing errors or taking control of the point, helping Djokovic accumulate 26 break points and convert 11. When Nadal completed his career Grand Slam by winning last year’s U.S. Open, he was broken a total of five times in seven matches.

The third game of the second set lasted 17 minutes and featured a bit of everything: 22 points; 8 deuces; 6 break points; a time violation warning against Nadal (Djokovic was admonished later in the set), complaints by both men that the glare from the Arthur Ashe Stadium lights was bothersome and seven exchanges that lasted at least 10 strokes.

After a 28-shot point, Djokovic leaned over and put his hands on his knees. Nadal was the one who faltered, though. He double-faulted to set up break point No. 6, then put an overhead into the net.

Once he adjusted to the conditions, Djokovic disguised shots well, often right near lines, if not right on them. He wound up with 55 winners — 23 more than Nadal — and, all in all, put on a masterful display of as diverse a game as one can have. He excelled at everything — serving, returning, volleying, groundstrokes and the sort of constant movement and retrieving with which Nadal usually frustrates opponents.

Nadal, of course, is no slouch himself. At 25 years old, he owns 10 Grand Slam titles.

“It was a tough match. Physical, mental, everything,” Nadal said. “It was a quality match.”

Sports, Pages 15 on 09/13/2011

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