Rafael Nadal completed an even split of the 2017 men’s Grand Slam loot with Roger Federer.
Nadal, back at No. 1 at age 31, underscored his resurgence by defeating Kevin Anderson of South Africa, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, in the United States Open singles final on Sunday.
It was Nadal’s third U.S. Open championship and his first since 2013. It was also his first title in a hardcourt tournament since January 2014.
But Nadal, with his innate competitive streak, is much more about confronting today’s challenges than obsessing over the past, and this triumphant season has been a testimony to his uncommon resilience and drive.
Like the 36-year-old Federer, his past-and-present rival, Nadal has re-emerged at the highest level after an injury layoff. Like Federer, Nadal has won two Grand Slam singles titles this year.
Federer beat Nadal in five sets to claim the Australian Open and then won Wimbledon before losing in the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open to Juan Martín del Potro. Nadal won an unprecedented 10th French Open in June and has now taken the U.S. Open.
It has been, in so many respects, a throwback season in the men’s game, in part because of the physical problems of Nadal’s and Federer’s traditional rivals.
None of the three men who won major titles in 2016 — Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka — were able to play in this year’s U.S. Open because of injuries.
Murray’s late withdrawal because of ongoing hip pain opened up the bottom half of the draw from which the 28th-seeded Anderson emerged. After defeating Pablo Carreño Busta in the semifinals on Friday, Anderson, 31, who lives in South Florida, climbed into the stands to celebrate with his team — a move usually reserved for winning titles.
“I don’t know if the team hug is the appropriate thing for the final, but it certainly seemed like the right thing to do,” Anderson said. “These Grand Slams are tough. We are privileged to play with some of the best players in the history of the game. It’s nice some of them gave us a bit of a shot to make a run at this tournament.”
It was an enchantingly modest comment, reflective of all the high-profile withdrawals. But Anderson still had to deal with Nadal, fresh and eager and back atop the tennis pyramid.
“I really thought Rafa still had this inside of him,” said Carlos Moya, a former No. 1 player who joined Nadal’s coaching team this season. “It’s easy to say that now, of course, but honestly I was thinking this in December. It was key to start with the final in Australia, but I was sure that he’d have a chance if he played well, to win some more Slams and be No. 1.”
Hiring Moya was a major move by Nadal, who has been coached since age 3 by his uncle Toni Nadal. Toni Nadal plans to step down at the end of the season and focus on working at a new tennis academy in Manacor, the Nadals’ home city on the Spanish island of Majorca.
Rafael Nadal’s 16 Grand Slam singles titles rank him second behind Federer’s 19, and though he has been most prolific on clay, he has now won six major singles titles on other surfaces.
He has won three U.S. Open titles and an Australian Open title on hard courts and two Wimbledon titles on grass.
Though conservative and superstitious by nature, Nadal has continued to push his tennis boundaries. His defense and court coverage, particularly in his semifinal victory over del Potro on Friday, remain remarkable.
“Well, he’s not 20 years old anymore, but he’s probably smarter on the court,” Moya said. “Anticipation is playing a big role in that. As you get older, you understand better the game and understand where the other guy can hit or cannot hit. Probably when he was 20, he was faster than now, but now he anticipates and covers the court better, so I think we’re pretty happy with that part.”
Toni Nadal sounds happy, too, but he also recognizes that his nephew had an uncommonly smooth path to this particular Grand Slam title.
For the first time, Nadal faced none of the other members of the so-called Big Five – Federer, Djokovic, Murray or Wawrinka – on his way to the U.S. Open trophy. And for the first time in any of his Grand Slam title runs, he faced nobody in the top 25 in the rankings, although del Potro, at No. 28, certainly qualifies as a major threat.
“I consider del Potro as top level, but the reality is we had an easy draw until then,” Toni Nadal said.
Anderson, seeded 28th, certainly has weapons, including a potent serve. At 6-foot-8, he is the tallest player to reach a major singles final. He also moves and covers the baseline well for a player of his height, producing big power with his groundstrokes.
He has long been eager to embrace innovative methods, like eye-movement training, to improve his game. This year he has been focusing on being more demonstrative and openly positive on court, in part because he admires Nadal’s upbeat and energetic approach to competition.
Nadal and Anderson, born less than a month apart in 1986, have known each other since boyhood. They played in some of the same junior tournaments, and a photograph of them grinning side by side in their early teens has regularly made the rounds on social media when they have faced off recently.
They had a chance to take plenty more photographs together on Sunday in Arthur Ashe Stadium, but as has so often been the case throughout his career, Nadal was the one holding the champions trophy.