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Renowned for spectacular groundstrokes, lithe movement, and competitive ferocity long before this US Open, Nadal’s game had lacked just one dimension:  an imposing serve.  Therefore, it seems especially fitting that he surmounted this final obstacle in his evolution as a player at the same time that he built the final pillar in his Grand Slam pantheon.  Broken just twice in his first six matches, the Spaniard relied upon his delivery to escape most of the predicaments in which he found himself during the final, most notably when he served for the pivotal third set.  Finally earning the free points that always had eluded him on his own serve, Nadal subjected Djokovic and the rest of his victims to constant pressure in their own service games.  In the best-of-five format, even the most relentless competitors will struggle to survive the mental and physical exertions required to protect their serve one grueling rally at a time.  Although Rafa endured a poor break-point conversion rate for most of the championship match, the efficiency of his holds compared with Djokovic’s elongated service games must have psychologically deflated the Serb over the course of four sets.  Moreover, the enhanced serve should play a vital role in Nadal’s longevity by enabling him to progress through early rounds more expeditiously and thus limit the burden upon his knees.

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Mounting inexorably during the fortnight, the world #1’s confidence diffused from the serve to the rest of his game.  Determined to curb his instinctive caution early in rallies, Nadal attacked both forehand and backhand with conviction as soon as opportunities presented themselves.  He positioned himself fearlessly on top of or inside the baseline rather than ceding territory to his opponents on this fast surface as he has in the past.  Casting a skeptical glance towards this triumph, skeptics will note that the Spaniard evaded sluggers including Soderling and Del Potro in addition to recent hard-court nemesis Murray; his pre-final draw couldn’t have been much cozier if Uncle Toni had designed it.  Yet the question remains as to whether even a Soderling or a Del Potro could have withstood the seamless blend of offense and defense anchored by Nadal’s newfound serving might.  While the US Open marks the conclusion of Rafa’s transformation from clay-court magician to all-surface master, it also signals the beginning of his status as one of the sport’s all-time legends.  Setting his accomplishments against those of Federer, in fact, the only category in which he significantly trails his archrival is the sheer volume of major titles won.  Otherwise, he not only has accomplished the career Slam at a younger age but has won three straight majors on three different surfaces and has captured an Olympic gold medal, achievements that Federer probably never will attain.  Although a product of the Spaniard’s precocity might be complacency, one senses that Nadal will continue to motivate himself with ever loftier goals as his career progresses.  If he continues to schedule judiciously and carefully monitor his knees, there’s no reason why GOATs can’t live on Mallorca.

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No longer content to meander through a career as a lovable loser, Djokovic regained his intensity during this US Open and rediscovered the crisp, clean elegance that characterized his game before recent travails.  This resurgence impressed even more than his initial breakthrough in late 2007-early 2008, when fans and commentators first acquainted themselves with a brash upstart unruffled by Federer and Nadal.  Had afternoon shadows not intervened in the fourth set of his New York opener, we might well be lamenting a premature exit at the hands of his compatriot Troicki, who once stood within three service holds of an upset.  Offered the reprieve, Djokovic gradually played his way into the tournament with increasingly authoritative wins against increasingly formidable foes.  Despite his accumulating momentum, few observers (including ourselves) believed that he would threaten Federer in the semifinals, for the five-time champion hadn’t dropped even a set until that stage.  On that Saturday afternoon, however, Djokovic emphatically reasserted his relevance as a contender.

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On at least five occasions in the labyrinthine semifinal, the Djokovic who competed half-heartedly against Federer at last year’s US Open would have succumbed to the seemingly inevitable.  First, when he lost the first set after having held a 4-2 lead and double-faulted to start the second set.  Second, when he lost the third set with a ghastly string of forehand errors as he served to force a tiebreak.  Third, when he failed to break Federer in a multiple-deuce game midway through the fifth set, during which both players displayed uncanny defense and impeccable timing.  (The fifth set surely ranks as the most thrilling single set played at any major this year.)  Fourth, when he slammed an overhead into the net and donated a pair of backhand errors when serving at 4-5.  At this stage, we actually had typed “Completely predictable brain cramp by Djokovic in the last game” on our Twitter page, ready to hit “Tweet”—except that it wasn’t the last game, and what followed wasn’t predictable at all.  In a consummate display of relentless aggression and intelligent shot selection, the Serb defied a crowd hungry for a Federer-Nadal final and snatched the match from his longtime New York nemesis.  Justifiably weary from the physical and mental toll exacted by this breathtaking encounter, Djokovic nevertheless summoned a valiant effort against Nadal in the final and threatened the Spaniard through the first three sets.  After dropping the first set, he rallied vigorously in the second set with shotmaking that occasionally left even Rafa frozen.  When the Serb finally yielded, furthermore, his polished, graceful attitude before and during the trophy ceremony drew deserved praise from his conqueror.  As the Federer-Nadal rivalry fades, an equally dazzling rivalry may rise to replace it.

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While Nadal heads home for a well-merited rest, Djokovic prepares to lead the Serbian Davis Cup team against the Czech Republic.  Will Novak lift his nation to its first World Group final, and who might meet them in November?  A Davis Cup semifinal preview arrives on Thursday…

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