Rafael Nadal’s latest U.S. Open victory and 13th Grand Slam title moved him into third place on the men’s career list. It left his opponent, the world’s No. 1 player, contemplating the Spaniard’s place in tennis history.
Second-seeded Nadal rallied from a break down in the third set to beat top-seeded Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 last night to capture his second U.S. Open title. He’s 22-0 this season on hard courts, which once were considered a weakness, one year after a knee injury sidelined him for seven months.
The victory moves Nadal past Australian Roy Emerson into sole possession of third place on the men’s Grand Slam singles list behind Roger Federer (17) of Switzerland and Pete Sampras (14) of the U.S. The win came one day after Serena Williams took the women’s title for her 17th Grand Slam singles title, enhancing her own legacy among the sport’s greats.
“Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible,” Djokovic told reporters. “He’s definitely one of the best tennis players ever to play the game, looking at his achievement and his age at this moment. He still has a lot of years to play. That’s all I can say.”
The match included a 54-shot rally that gave Djokovic a service break in the second set, and turned again in the third when Nadal saved triple-break point at 4-4 and went on to hold serve. That set ended when Djokovic sent a backhand long, and Nadal crouched at the baseline pumping his fist to the approval of the 25,101 fans at the National Tennis Center in New York.
“I tried to keep fighting for every ball, be focused in every moment,” Nadal said in a news conference. “I know if I am only one break behind, I will have my chance. Then you can convert or not, and I did.”
Victory was soon to follow. Nadal broke serve twice in the fourth set and converted his first match point when Djokovic sent a forehand into the net after 3 hours, 21 minutes of play. Djokovic hit 46 winners to Nadal’s 27, and had 53 unforced errors to 20 for the champion.
Nadal earned $3.6 million for the title, including a $1 million bonus for winning two hard-court tournaments leading up to the season’s final Grand Slam. The left-hander’s career earnings are $60.5 million, second behind Federer at $77.9 million.
Nadal’s brand also remains in Federer’s shadow, according to Darin David, a senior director in the sports marketing group of Dallas-based The Marketing Arm.
Nadal is known by 40 percent of U.S. consumers compared with Federer’s 60 percent, according to The Marketing Arm’s Celebrity DBI, an index that measures endorsement qualities. Nadal, who constantly fidgets during matches and refuses to step on the court’s white lines between games, also trails Federer in metrics such as appeal and endorsement potential.
“With all of Nadal’s flair and quirks, it’s surprising that more brands haven’t been willing to work with him,” David said in an e-mail. “Part of the issue has been that Federer has taken the lion’s share of endorsements as the epitome of class in the sport.”
Federer makes $65 million annually in endorsements, according to Forbes Magazine’s 2013 valuations, more than three times Nadal’s $21 million. The 32-year-old from Switzerland was the No. 7 seed at this year’s tournament, his worst at the Open since 2002, and lost in straight sets in the fourth round to 19th-seeded Tommy Robredo of Spain.
Nadal now is four Grand Slam titles behind Federer’s record, and the Spaniard is five years younger. They are the only active men with a career Grand Slam -- at least one win at each of the four majors.
The winner of a record eight championships on the red clay of the French Open, Nadal continued his evolution to an all-court winner in New York. He won the 2009 Australian Open on hard courts, and has two titles on grass at Wimbledon.
Nadal withdrew from the Australian Open this year due to a stomach virus and missed seven months, including the 2012 London Olympics and last year’s U.S. Open, while battling tendinitis in his left knee. He is 60-3 this year, having returned to the court in February, and has 10 titles -- bringing his career total to 60.
“I never thought that something like this could happen,” Nadal said. “I just was excited to be back on tour.”
Last night was the 37th match between Nadal and Djokovic, who have combined to win 12 of the past 15 Grand Slam tournaments. The 37 meetings are the most of any men’s rivalry in the professional era that began in 1968, one more than Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. Nadal leads the series 22-15.
Djokovic was seeking his second U.S. Open championship and his seventh Grand Slam title. The 26-year-old Serbian reached the final of three major tournaments in 2013 for the third consecutive year and will retain the No. 1 spot in the ATP World Tour rankings, which he’s held since taking the top spot from Federer last October.
“At the end of the day I have to be satisfied with a final,” Djokovic said. “It was obvious that in the important moments he played better tennis and that’s why he deserved to win.”
Williams, the women’s top seed, won her fifth U.S. Open singles title two days ago, defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1 in another match of the top two players in the world rankings.
It was the 17th career Grand Slam singles title for the 31-year-old American, leaving her five behind Steffi Graf’s record of 22 in the professional era. She is one behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
Nadal said yesterday that he is not satisfied with his Grand Slam title haul.
“Thirteen is an amazing number,” he said. “I’m going to keep working hard, keep doing my things to have more chances in the future.”