Keeping Score

The Only Question in Tennis That Matters: Can Rafa Catch Roger?

After Rafael Nadal's brilliance against Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, he looks like a pretty safe bet

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Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Rafael Nadal of Spain lifts the U.S. Open Championship trophy as he celebrates winning the men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York City, on Sept. 9, 2013

Rafael Nadal is 27. And after he missed last year’s U.S. Open and this year’s Australian Open with a knee injury, you hope his worst ailments are over. With his four-set U.S. Open victory over Novak Djokovic on Monday night, Nadal now has 13 Grand Slam championships — one behind Pete Sampras, and just four behind the all-time leader, Roger Federer.

Federer, 32, might be done; his loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of this year’s U.S. Open certainly inspires little confidence. Nadal is pretty much unbeatable on clay. So you can probably count on a couple of more French Opens, at least, for Nadal.

And, oh yeah, Nadal hasn’t lost on hard courts yet this year. Unless Federer keeps winning Slams, Nadal is a good bet to catch him.

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Nadal’s 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win against Djokovic in this year’s U.S. Open final should go down as one of his sweetest. “He’s a mental genius,” said Wojtek Fibak, one of Djokovic’s exasperated coaches, after the match. In the third set, Nadal and Djokovic were tied at 4-4, each having won a set. Nadal was serving, and fell behind 0-40. On one point, Nadal tripped over himself on the baseline, while chasing down a very hittable Djokovic shot. On the next point, Nadal’s feet got tripped up again, after Djokovic hit a beauty that fell right at the baseline.

Djokovic had finally stopped Nadal from chasing down everything. He was about to break Nadal, and serve for the set. “I was the one who was, you know, dictating the play,” Djokovic said afterward.

But Nadal fought back — thus, the mental genius — and even recorded his first, and only, ace of the match at 30-40. He held, and Djokovic never recovered: his unforced errors pockmarked the fourth set (Djokovic finished with 53 unforced errors, Nadal with 20).

In their 37 matches — Nadal leads the head-to-head series 22-15 — Nadal and Djokovic have played a few classics. They went the distance at Roland Garros this summer, at the French Open, in the semis — Nadal won a fifth-set tiebreaker. On the CBS broadcast, analyst Mary Carillo said it was the best match she’d ever seen on clay. And tennis fans won’t soon forget their five-set duel down under, at the 2012 Australian Open, which lasted five hours and 53 minutes. Djokovic won that one.

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This U.S. Open final might not have reached that level, if only because it didn’t go a full five. Plus, Djokovic played pretty badly in the fourth set. But the match had a handful of 20-plus-shot rallies, including a 54-shot marathon in the second set, which Djokovic won. “Seriously, I felt really tired after that point,” said Nadal. “After this point the opponent will be tired too, so it’s my moment to be strong.” The crowd rose to its feet, as if one of them won the championship — Djokovic celebrated as if he had. They cheered at least one other thrilling point with such fervor.

When it was time for match point, the New York crowd — surprise, surprise — wouldn’t shut up. The crowd was still buzzed, thanks to the great tennis, and whatever else. Nadal kept bouncing the ball until, finally, silence. After he won the point, Nadal fell on his back, and rolled around. He gave Djokovic a hearty hug at the net, even putting his head on his opponent’s shoulder: he then fell to the ground again, face to the floor, sobbing.

Nadal then signed a thousand autographs, kissed nearly every family member and friend in sight, and chatted with Spain’s Queen Sofía in the lobby of the Arthur Ashe Stadium players’ area. Someone asked him if he could see himself surpassing Sampras and Federer. After all, he’s only 27. “Let me enjoy today,” he said, smiling. “For me, [this] is much more than what I ever thought, what I ever dreamed … Thirteen is an amazing number.”

So is 17. It’s right there. Nadal, the guy who first won the French Open at 19, who people figured would be a clay-court specialist, may yet be the best of all time.

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