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U.S. Open: Novak Djokovic the champion over Rafael Nadal

September 12, 2011 |  5:58 pm

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For more than four hours Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played punishing tennis that was also beautiful. They grunted and groaned and sent tennis balls straight at each over, over each other, around each other.

And after it appeared Djokovic was down and out, when he had lost the third set and was groaning on the sidelines while a trainer stretched and pulled and pounded on his aching back, the 24-year-old from Serbia came out for more.

Djokovic played the final games as if pain didn’t matter and, after making a sign of the cross, Djokovic bounced the ball 10 times, hit a serve and then a forehand winner, a massive thing that left Nadal almost immobile.

For the sixth time in a row Djokovic beat Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1, in 4 hours 10 minutes. The win made Djokovic 64-2 this year, gave him his first U.S. Open title and also placed him among the all-time greats.

He became the sixth man to win three of the four major titles in the same year since tennis' open era began in 1968. He won the Australian Open over Andy Murray in the final and beat Nadal in the Wimbledon final.

Overall, this was Djokovic's fourth major title. His first was at the Australian Open in 2008.

“It’s been an incredible year,” said Djokovic, who put on a blue baseball cap with FD/NY on it in honor of New York City firefighters, a day after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The second-seeded Nadal, the defending champion, said, “Obviously I am disappointed now. This guy is doing unbelievable things.” Then he looked toward Djokovic and said, “What you did this year is probably impossible to repeat, so well done.”

After dropping the first two games of the first set, Djokovic began opening up the court with his swift movement and Nadal started to grow frustrated at watching some of his shots get shifted by a swirling, late-afternoon wind. Djokovic began making Nadal run corner to corner and from baseline to net and won six games in a row.

After 53 minutes, Djokovic served a love game and Nadal dropped his head as he walked to his seat on the changeover. The Spaniard had his serve broken three times in a row to end the set.

The third game of the second set encompassed enough ovation-causing tennis for an entire match. It lasted 17 minutes 15 seconds, and while trying to defend a sixth break point, Nadal, who appeared positioned for a winning overhead, slammed the ball into the net into the net.

If Nadal had held serve, he would have grabbed a 3-0 lead. Instead it was Djokovic who pumped his fist, came out after the changeover and held serve at love.

It was a game of momentous physical tennis, with both players grunting loudly. Djokovic has a two-toned sound, Nadal’s grunt is deeper and at the end of points and it made that single game sound symphonic.

But after all the running forehands and sharp volleys and topspin ground strokes and lobs, it was one huge error by Nadal, who overhit a forehand volley into the net, that gave Djokovic the service break and made the start of the second set too much like the first for Nadal's taste.

Nadal could have gone ahead 3-0 and carried the crowd’s momentum. Instead, Djokovic held on to win the second set as well.

Nadal might have lost total grasp of the match in the fourth game of the third set, when he wasted two break points. But he finally scored on the third to even the set at 2-2.

As had happened three times previously, though, Djokovic broke back. In a game that was filled with baseline rallies of bravado and drop shots of touch, Djokovic took the advantage again, up 3-2, and this time it seemed as if the Spaniard might not have enough belief left to win. Nadal was smiling almost in agony when he sat in his chair on the changeover.

Except it was Djokovic who soon looked suddenly vulnerable.

In the next game Djokovic started stretching his back in between points, served up a double fault and was broken at love. The crowd was roaring in support of Nadal, even during points, sometimes so loudly that Djokovic would cup his racket to his ear or mimic a “shush” move with his fingers to his lips.

And in the 11thgame, after the two stayed on serve to get to 5-all, Djokovic struck suddenly. With his 20thbreak point chance of the match, Djokovic cracked a backhand winner that hit the baseline and took a 6-5 lead.

With the chance to serve out the match, though,  Djokovic was sent diving into splits as Nadal won one point, and the Serb hit a forehand long on break point to send the third set into a tiebreaker.

And it was all Nadal in the tiebreak. The Spaniard took a 5-1 advantage and won on his second set point with a forehand return winner. During the changeover, Djokovic called for the trainer, who worked on the Serb’s back.

After Djokovic held serve to open the fourth set, he called for the trainer again and used an injury timeout, during which the trainer worked on his back, massaging and pummeling Djokovic’s body as Djokovic had been doing to the tennis ball.

And then Djokovic won another two games to take a 3-0 lead to send the match running away from Nadal.

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--Diane Pucin, reporting from New York

Photo: Novak Djokovic begins to celebrate after defeating Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open men's championship match on Monday night in New York. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

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