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Rafa's rise to world domination

Rafael Nadal
The ever-changing faces of the new US Open champion

By Mark Ashenden

All hail the new king of the courts.

Rafael Nadal fell to his knees under the leaden skies of Flushing Meadows on Monday after beating Novak Djokovic to be crowned US Open champion and firmly cement his place in the history books.

After two weeks of charming the New York crowds with brute force and devastating beauty, the 24-year-old Spaniard finally got his hands on the trophy that had eluded him for so long to become only the seventh man to complete the Grand Slam set.

Rafael Nadal

Nadal wins first Grand Slam at French Open in 2005

Five titles on the Roland Garros clay, two on the Wimbledon grass and last year's victory at the Australian Open were signs of greatness in the making.

Nadal's 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-2 win over Serbia's weary number three seed meant the New York concrete had finally been conquered after seven years of trying. Sunday's downpours merely delayed his conquest.

"That's more than I dreamt," declared the man from Mallorca who had never previously got past the US Open semi-finals.

"For the first time in my career, I played a very, very good match in this tournament. I played my best match in the US Open at the most important moment."

It was a contest that Roger Federer, five-time champion in New York and loser to Djokovic in this year's semis, could not bear to watch.

The 29-year-old Swiss had already been replaced by Nadal at the top of the rankings and with the player boasting the deadliest and most powerful left arm in the business now more than halfway to Federer's haul of 16 Grand Slam titles, it could be argued the Spaniard is set to topple his arch rival.

NADAL v FEDERER AT SAME AGE
Matches won - lost (Nadal): 460 - 98
Matches won - lost (Federer): 390 - 119
Winning %: 82.4 - 76.6
Titles: 42 - 33
Grand Slams: 9 - 6
Slams played: 26 - 27
Davis Cup titles: 3 - 0
Olympic golds: 1 - 0
Longest winning streak: 32-34

Federer has up until recently been hailed by many to be the greatest. Nadal says any comparisons with him are "stupid". But the stats are compelling.

When analysing the duo's accomplishments at the same age, Federer secured the Slam sweep at the 2009 French Open aged two-and-a-half years older than Nadal's current age. Nadal has won 42 titles with Federer having won 33 when aged 24, while Nadal has won 82.4% of his matches, compared to Federer's 76.6% five years ago.

Bjorn Borg, US Open runner-up four times, was the only other man to bag nine major championship victories by 24.

Nadal first picked up a racquet aged four with his uncle Toni (who remains his mentor and coach) and after turning professional in 2001, won his first match on the ATP circuit in Mallorca to become the ninth player in the professional era to win an ATP match before his 16th birthday.

His first ATP title arrived in Poland in 2004, a year later he became the first man since Mats Wilander (1982) to win the French Open title on his debut and in the following year at Roland Garros, racked up his 54th consecutive clay-court win. His winning streak on clay would go on to reach 81.

His march to the top was relentless. A straights-set demolition of Federer ensured a fourth successive French Open crown in 2008 and a month later, the Swiss was toppled once again in a five-set epic as Nadal conquered Wimbledon's grass for the first time.

JONATHAN OVEREND'S BLOG

Federer was again on the receiving end eight months later in the Australian Open final as his Spanish nemesis powered his way to glory on Melbourne's hard courts in another belting five-setter.

The left-hander's rise has not been without its setbacks. The last year has been a monumental test, on and off the court, with knee tendonitis, abdominal pain, a knee injury and the break-up of his parents all proving major obstacles.

"The life changes sometimes," Nadal said in New York on Monday night. "The second half of the year was very difficult. Ten months ago seems like I was never going to be the same. Now seems it's going to be one of the greatest."

The true test of Nadal's greatness will be his longevity and being able to surpass Federer's 16 Slam crowns. His approach to this year's tournament at Flushing Meadows and his evolution from king of clay to king of concrete provides a glimpse of what the future may hold.

RAFAEL NADAL TIMELINE
1986: Born 3 June
2003: Makes top 50 for first time
2005: June - wins French Open title on debut
2006: Defends French open title with 59-game unbeaten streak
2007: May - Winning streak on clay ends at 81 matches with defeat in the final of Hamburg Masters to Federer
2007: Wins third straight French Open, beating Federer in the final for second successive year
2007: Loses Wimbledon final to Federer over five sets
2008: Beats Federer to win fourth successive French Open title to become fifth player to win a Grand Slam without dropping a set
2008: Beats Federer to win first Wimbledon title and become first man since Borg in 1980 to hold Wimbledon and French Open titles simultaneously
2008: August - Wins Olympic gold in Beijing
2009: Beats Federer to win first Australian Open title
2010: January - Retires with knee injury in Australian Open quarter-final when trailing Murray
2010: June - Beats Murray and Thomas Berdych to claim second Wimbledon title

While the packed crowd on Arthur Ashe cheered their tearful new victor on Monday, Nadal admitted the US Open was the most difficult tournament to play in - having to adjust his game for the "balls, the court, everything, but especially the serve".

As well as the barrage of missiles firing at all angles from the baseline, his serve is now one of his crucial weapons.

Nadal's average serve speed increased from 107mph in 2009 to 119 this year, and through six rounds and 91 service games in the build-up to the Djokovic clash, he won 84% of his first-serve points and was broken just twice.

These could be worrying signs for anybody considering competing with the current Slam champion of three surfaces and last year's winner in Melbourne.

Djokovic, the only player to take a set off Nadal in seven matches at Flushing Meadows, said: "Nadal is proving each day, each year, that he's getting better. That's what's so frustrating. He's getting better each time you play him.

"He's so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever."

John McEnroe, a four-time champion in New York, had no doubt of Nadal's credentials in August when predicting Nadal's success at the US Open.

"The guy's just an animal. He's mentally and physically incredible," the American former world number one said.

More telling perhaps was Nadal's verdict that there remained room for improvement. He added: "I need to keep working on my serve and be more aggressive. I am not a perfect player. Everybody can improve."

Rafael Nadal celebrates his win

Nadal wins second Wimbledon crown in 2010



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see also
Nadal win seals career Grand Slam
14 Sep 10 |  Tennis
Nadal cool on Federer comparison
14 Sep 10 |  Tennis
Nadal v Djokovic as it happened
13 Sep 10 |  Tennis
US Open men's final photos
13 Sep 10 |  Tennis
Djokovic stuns Federer at US Open
11 Sep 10 |  Tennis
Nadal reaches first US Open final
11 Sep 10 |  Tennis
McEnroe tips Nadal for Slam sweep
05 Jul 10 |  Tennis
Nadal wins second Wimbledon title
04 Jul 10 |  Tennis
Nadal powers to fifth French Open
06 Jun 10 |  Tennis
Injured Nadal to miss four weeks
29 Jan 10 |  Tennis


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