Commentary

Nadal was great, Djokovic was better

After winning his third Grand Slam of 2011, anything is possible for Novak Djokovic

Updated: September 13, 2011, 12:01 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It seems odd to call what was nearly a straight-set win a "classic," so how about an "epic"? Epic fits. The way that top-ranked Novak Djovokic and second-ranked Rafael Nadal relentlessly battered each other Monday in their exhausting, exhilarating U.S. Open final -- tormenting each other with more bludgeoning rallies and spectacular defensive saves and mind-rattling service breaks than you typically see in a week -- Nadal had a right to expect better than a sixth straight loss to the man who has become the latest riddle to present himself in men's tennis.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesIn an epic U.S. Open final on Monday, Rafael Nadal (left) had to settle for second place.

By making the U.S. Open the third Grand Slam this year that he's won, Djokovic did more than continue to unspool one of the great years in tennis history with his grueling 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 victory over Nadal that improved Djokovic's 2011 won-lost record to an astonishing 64-2.

Djokovic also made sure that the riddle he keeps presenting to everyone who has tried and failed to beat him this year will keep rolling into early 2012, when everyone convenes again for the Australian Open: Exactly how do you defeat a player who combines the superior footspeed of Nadal and the world-best service return game Andre Agassi once had with the brilliant shotmaking Pete Sampras used to pull off on the run and the impenetrable confidence that Roger Federer once had?

Those are the questions that Djokovic poses right now. And as if all of that weren't enough, Djokovic put another distinction next to his name Monday on the way to seizing his first U.S. Open title in a rematch of last year's final.

He displaced Nadal as the toughest man in tennis, too.

The way Djokovic's face curled into a snarl as he prepared to serve out the match was fitting. He's not just the most strategically confounding or the winningest force in the game. He also proved he's got a granite jaw.

Nadal tried to make Monday's match a war of attrition and Djokovic beat Nadal at his own game.

"It's an amazing year," Djokovic said, "and it just keeps going."

What made Monday's match even more riveting than the shotmaking or high stakes was the elemental show of will each man displayed. Djokovic stood up to the relentless hammering from Nadal -- who has made grinding opponents' bones to dust a career-long specialty, especially on clay -- and then just kept on coming at him, at him, at him, in ways that were remarkable to see. Djokovic absorbed everything Nadal threw at him, and then often did Nadal one more well-struck shot or save better.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic is on top of the tennis world -- what's the next chapter in his story?

Nadal, to his credit, didn't buckle either. He's been frank about how sick he was of losing to Djokovic, and it showed in how he quite literally chased every ball that came back at him. A lesser player would've quit. But Nadal made Djokovic beat him. Even if Nadal ultimately didn't win, there was still honor in how he lost.

"The mental challenge -- I was ready for that, to accept everything, to fight for every ball, and that's what I did," Nadal said.

It's no exaggeration to say balls literally cracked like gunshots off their rackets for 25, 27, sometimes 31 strokes they often played just to decide a single point. The third game of the second set lasted an absurdly long 17 minutes all by itself. The entire match took 4 hours, 10 minutes to play, and though Djokovic kept getting the better of Nadal again and again while struggling out to his two-sets-to-none lead, Nadal just kept sloughing off each lost game or setback and lighting out after the next point.

Nadal was great. Yet it wasn't good enough. Djokovic was better.

Still, the accumulated strain of it all was so great that by the start of the fourth set, the 24-year-old Djokovic took a long medical timeout to lay on his stomach on the court and get treatment on his back. His legs were cramping, too. And the 25-year-old Nadal, who's far more famous for being tireless, stayed jackknifed at the waist after losing one point and used his racket like a crutch to push himself back up.

How long Djokovic can stay at this spectacular level is a question that will be answered another day. So far, it's been nine months, 66 matches and counting. And yet Nadal, rather than sounding as depressed as he did after losing Wimbledon, promised Monday that the next time he sees Djokovic he'll bring even more haymakers to throw at him. Nadal feels himself getting closer to toppling Djokovic. He does.

"I don't 'enjoy' battling him -- six straight losses, for sure, it's painful," Nadal said. "But I'm going to work every day until that changes. ... I have a goal. He is the goal for me now."

Djokovic began the year by winning the Australian Open and ripping off a 43-match winning streak that Federer snapped in the semifinals of the French Open, which Nadal eventually won. Djokovic then beat Nadal in the Wimbledon final, and suffered his only other loss of 2011 to Andy Murray in Cincinnati after falling behind a set and eventually retiring from the match with a sore shoulder.

Had Djokovic not beaten Nadal again here in New York, the question of how to assess this year might've been more muddled. They'd have each won two Slams.

But now there's no doubt. No debate. Just that riddle that won't go away.

If Federer couldn't close out Djokovic after grabbing a 2-0 set lead and then two match points in the semis here in New York, and Nadal couldn't beat Djokovic with the effort he threw out Monday, then who or what can?

Djokovic was asked if he feels he cannot lose right now. He laughed and said no.

Well then, how about pulling off a sweep of all four 2012 Grand Slams?

"I don't want to say it's not possible," Djokovic laughed. "Everything is."

Especially for Djokovic in the here and now.

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