Reporting from New York — Rafael Nadal tried to take a bite of the U.S. Open trophy Monday night after he had swallowed a chunk of tennis history.
In a 3 hour, 43-minute match that had been delayed by one day and then almost another two hours because of rain, top-seeded Nadal won his first U.S. Open championship Monday night with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory over third-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia.
For the Spaniard it was his ninth major title and at the age of 24 years, 101 days, he became the third-youngest man in the Open era of tennis to have won at least one Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He is also only one of seven men to have earned at least one of each major title.
When he was presented with the shiny winner's Tiffany-designed cup, Nadal smiled and took a photographer's delight of a bite.
"For the first time in my career I played a very, very good match in this tournament," Nadal said. "I worked a lot all my life to be here, but I never imagined I would have all four Grand Slams."
Nadal was charmingly overwhelming during this entire tournament but especially Monday night when he punched, punched, punched at Djokovic, muscling a crosscourt passing shot past the diving Serbian or leveling a backhand accompanied by a grunt and a grin. Sometimes, after a particularly emphatic point, Nadal would offer his crooked smile and lower his head.
And sometimes Djokovic could only applaud his opponent, along with the stalwart fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium and those watching on television who outlasted a nearly two-hour rain delay in the second set that pushed the match off CBS and onto ESPN2.
In that ending game Djokovic got one final chance to smile when he scored a point on a drop shot that touched the top of the net then trickled over. It was about the only way the hard-charging Nadal wouldn't have reached the ball.
The Spaniard earned match point with a forehand passing shot that hit the baseline and caused Djokovic to throw up his arms and bow towards Nadal.
Djokovic beat second-seeded Roger Federer on Saturday in a dramatic five-set semifinal and so the 23-year-old Serbian has had an up-close look at two men who are now counted as among the best ever.
Federer has the most major championship wins in history with 16, but Nadal has reached nine at a younger age than Federer.
"Rafa has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever," Djokovic said. "I think he's playing the best tennis I've ever seen him play on hard courts. He has improved his serve drastically. The speed, the accuracy, and of course his baseline [game] is as good as ever."
In Nadal's opinion though, to talk about whether he will be historically better than Federer is pointless.
"To talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid," Nadal said. "The titles say he's much better than me so that's the truth at the moment.
"But always Roger was an example because he improved his tennis during all his career and that's a good thing that you can copy."
Nadal needed to use all his talents to quell Djokovic, who played a spell of especially superb tennis in the second set when he won 11 straight points, earned a service break and a 4-1 lead.
But after Nadal was down 0-15 on his serve in the sixth game, he seemed to regain his rhythm.
Djokovic knocked a passing shot into the net and Nadal dipped a nifty drop shot over the net, one so perfect that Djokovic applauded. Nadal held serve at 30 and was down 2-4 when he broke Djokovic. And when Nadal held serve again, it was 4-4 and about to rain.
It was Djokovic who seemed rejuvenated after the storm break, and the people who remained in the stadium or who found the match on television again were rewarded with a display of extreme tennis from both men. They were hitting the corners everywhere. Djokovic would occasionally sneak into the net. Both were unafraid to hit drop volleys or lobs.
But the effort of saving break points over and over seemed to finally tire out Djokovic by the start of the fourth set. Nadal earned a service break in the third game of the fourth set by converting on his 24th break-point chance (it was the fifth conversion).
Nadal is the first left-handed player to win the U.S. Open since John McEnroe won in 1984, and he is the first Spanish champion since Manuel Orantes won in 1975.