Nadal back on top at US Open

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NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal en­tered the 2017 Grand Slam sea­son on a 2½-year drought with­out so much as one ap­pear­ance in a ma­jor final, let alone a ti­tle. He ends it hav­ing re­asserted him­self, capped by a US Open final that shaped up as quite a mis­match — and turned out to be ex­actly that. His game at a higher level than it needed to be by the end of an un­usu­ally easy path through the field, Nadal over­whelmed Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 on Sun­day to win his third cham­pi­onship at Flush­ing Mead­ows. “Of course, af­ter a cou­ple of years with­out com­pet­ing at this very high, high level,” Nadal said, “very happy to be back.”

The No. 1-ranked Nadal col­lected his 16th Grand Slam tro­phy over­all and at his news con­fer­ence, he wore a white T-shirt list­ing the date and site of each one. Among men, only Roger Fed­erer has more, with 19.

Each of those two long­time ri­vals won two of the four ma­jors this sea­son, mark­ing their re­turn to the heights of their sport. Nadal has dealt with knee and wrist prob­lems, both likely a re­sult of his phys­i­cal brand of play, over his ca­reer, but 2015 and 2016 were his first sea­sons with­out reach­ing at least one Grand Slam final since 2004, when he was still a teenager. Seems safe to say that, at age 31, he is once again the Nadal of old. “I mean, I’ve al­ways said he’s one of the, ob­vi­ously, great­est play­ers of our sport, ob­vi­ously feel­ing very con­fi­dent,” Anderson said.

“He seems to have turned around a lot of those in­juries he’s ex­pe­ri­enced the last cou­ple of years. I guess time will tell on that.” At No. 32, Anderson was the low­est-ranked US Open men’s fi­nal­ist since the ATP com­puter rank­ings be­gan in 1973.

The 31-year-old South African never had been past the quar­ter­fi­nals at any ma­jor tour­na­ment in 33 pre­vi­ous

ap­pear­ances, so when he won his semi­fi­nal on Fri­day, he climbed into the stands to cel­e­brate. There would be no such joy for him on this day. Nadal added to his US Open tri­umphs in 2010 and 2013 and im­proved to 16-7 in Grand Slam fi­nals. For the first time since 2013, he ap­peared in three in a sin­gle sea­son, los­ing to Fed­erer at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary, then beat­ing Stan Wawrinka for his record 10th French Open tro­phy in June. Nadal’s ca­reer haul also in­cludes two tro­phies from Wim­ble­don and one from the Aus­tralian Open. All of his big vic­to­ries have come while be­ing coached by his un­cle, Toni, who is now step­ping aside.

The US Open was the last Grand Slam event of their part­ner­ship. It was not as daunt­ing as usual. Not since Pete Sam­pras at Wim­ble­don in 2000 had a man won a Slam tour­na­ment with­out fac­ing any op­po­nents ranked in the top 20. In New York, the bracket was weak­ened by the in­jury with­drawals of three of the top five men: past champions Andy Mur­ray, No­vak Djokovic and Wawrinka. Plus, Nadal did not need to deal with Fed­erer: The po­ten­tial for a semi­fi­nal, which would have been their first US Open meet­ing, was dashed when Juan Martin del Potro elim­i­nated Fed­erer in the quar­ter­fi­nals.

Nadal then beat del Potro , the 2009 cham­pion but now ranked 28th, in the semis. Much like Nadal’s 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 win against Wawrinka at Roland Gar­ros, the only beauty of this match was not in its com­pet­i­tive­ness — not by a long shot — but in an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for one par­tic­i­pant’s ab­so­lute su­pe­ri­or­ity. Fore­hands whipped up the line. Two-handed back­hands ripped cross-court with fe­roc­ity.

The spin­ning, back-to-the-net re­turns of serves that darted in at him at more than 130 mph (210 kph) and helped him break Anderson four times. “I learned a lot of lessons,” Anderson con­ceded. “It was a dif­fi­cult match, up against some­body who has been on that stage over 20 times be­fore.” Nadal even came up with some ter­rific vol­leys, win­ning the point on all 16 of his trips to the net. Anderson, mean­while, fin­ished 16 for 34 in that cat­e­gory.

An­other dif­fer­ence-maker: Nadal never faced a break point, al­though that was more a re­flec­tion of his tal­ent once the ball was in play than any par­tic­u­larly dom­i­nant serv­ing. With Nadal stand­ing way back to re­ceive serves, nearly back­ing into the line judges, he neu­tral­ized Anderson’s most ef­fec­tive skill. Anderson came in hav­ing won 103 of 108 ser­vice games across six matches, but Nadal ac­cu­mu­lated break points at will from the get-go — two in a six-deuce game at 1-all, an­other two in a five-deuce game at 2-all. Anderson be­gan try­ing to end points quickly with a vol­ley.

Two prob­lems with that: Anderson is not usu­ally a serve-and-volleyer and so is no expert at that tac­tic; Nadal is su­perb at sum­mon­ing pass­ing shots at ex­treme speeds and an­gles, es­pe­cially when fac­ing the sort of tar­get pro­vided by the 6-foot-8 (2.03-me­ter) Anderson, the tall- est Grand Slam fi­nal­ist in his­tory. At 3-all, 30-all, Anderson double-faulted to of­fer up Nadal’s fifth break point of the match, then badly pushed a fore­hand wide. That only made the score 4-3 , but the statis­tics were telling: Anderson had 21 un­forced er­rors, Nadal just four. A pat­tern had been es­tab­lished. “That,” Nadal said, “changed the rest of the match.” When he broke to lead 4-2 in the sec­ond set , that was pretty much that.

“I al­ways ac­cepted all the chal­lenges that my ca­reer present to me. The good news and the neg­a­tive news, I ac­cepted in the same way, in a very nat­u­ral way. I am a per­son that I don’t have much ups and downs,” Nadal said. “When I am in a neg­a­tive mo­ment, I don’t go very down. When I am in a pos­i­tive mo­ment, prob­a­bly like now, I don’t be­lieve that I am that good.” Rest as­sured, Rafa. You’re good.

(AP)

RAFAEL Nadal, of Spain, holds up the cham­pi­onship tro­phy af­ter beat­ing Kevin Anderson, of South Africa, in the men's sin­gles final of the US Open ten­nis tour­na­ment, Sun­day, Sept. 10, 2017, in New York.

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