Rafael Nadal against Kevin Anderson in the U.S. Open final shaped up as quite a mismatch — and that’s exactly what it was.
His game at a high level at the end of an unusually easy path through a Grand Slam field, Nadal overwhelmed first-time major finalist Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 on Sunday to win his third championship at Flushing Meadows.
It is the No. 1-ranked Nadal’s second Grand Slam title of the year and 16th overall. Among men, only Roger Federer has more, with 19.
Each of those two longtime rivals won two of the four majors in 2017, marking a return of both to the heights of their sport.
Not only didn’t an injury-hampered Nadal win a Grand Slam tournament in 2015 or 2016 — his first such shutouts since 2004, when he was still a teenager — but he didn’t even make it to a final in that span. Seems safe to say that, at age 31, he is once again the Nadal of old.
“Personally, it’s just unbelievable what happened this year,” Nadal said, “after a couple of years with some troubles, injuries, some moments playing not good.”
At No. 32, Anderson was the lowest-ranked U.S. Open men’s finalist since the ATP computer rankings began in 1973. The 31-year-old South African never had been past the quarterfinals at any major tournament in 33 previous appearances, so when he won his semifinal on Friday, he climbed into the stands to celebrate.
There would be no such joy for him on this day. Nadal simply dominated every facet of the two-and-a-half hour final.
“I know we’re the same age, but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life,” said Anderson, who is less than a month older than Nadal. “You really have been an idol of mine. And it’s tough playing you. You proved it again tonight.”
Nadal added to his U.S. Open triumphs in 2010 and 2013 and improved to 16-7 in Grand Slam finals. For the first time since 2013, he appeared in three in a single season, losing to Federer at the Australian Open in January, then beating Stan Wawrinka for his record 10th French Open trophy in June.
Nadal’s career haul also includes two trophies from Wimbledon and one from the Australian Open. All of his big victories have come while being coached by his uncle, Toni, who is now stepping aside. The U.S. Open was the last Grand Slam event of their partnership.
Not since Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2000 had a man won a Slam tournament without facing any opponents ranked in the top 20.
In New York this time, the bracket was weakened by the injury withdrawals of three of the top five men: past champions Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Wawrinka.
Plus, Nadal did not need to deal with Federer: The potential for a semifinal, which would have been their first U.S. Open meeting, was dashed when Juan Martin del Potro eliminated Federer in the quarterfinals. Nadal then beat del Potro , the 2009 champion but now ranked 28th, in the semis.
Much like Nadal’s 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 win against Wawrinka at Roland Garros, the only beauty of this match was not in its competitiveness — not by a long shot — but in an appreciation for one participant’s absolute superiority.
Forehands whipped up the line. Two-handed backhands ripped cross-court with ferocity. The spinning, back-to-the-net returns of serves that darted in at him at more than 130 mph (210 kph) and helped him break Anderson four times.
He even came up with some terrific volleys, winning the point on all 16 of his trips to the net. Anderson, meanwhile, finished 16 for 34 in that category. Another difference-maker: Nadal never faced a break point, although that was more a reflection of his talent once the ball was in play than any particularly dominant serving.
With Nadal standing way back to receive serves, nearly backing into the line judges, he neutralized Anderson’s most effective skill. Anderson came in having won 103 of 108 service games across six matches, but Nadal accumulated break points at will from the get-go — two in a six-deuce game at 1-all, another two in a five-deuce game at 2-all.
Anderson began trying to end points quickly with a volley. Two problems with that: Anderson is not usually a serve-and-volleyer and so is no expert at that tactic; Nadal is superb at summoning passing shots at extreme speeds and angles, especially when facing the sort of target provided by the 6-foot-8 (2.03-meter) Anderson, the tallest Grand Slam finalist in history.
It was only a matter of time until Nadal capitalized on a chance. Anderson let him do just that at three-all, 30-all, double-faulting to offer up Nadal’s fifth break point of the match, then badly pushing a cross-court forehand wide.
That only made the score 4-3, but the statistics were telling: Anderson had 21 unforced errors, Nadal just four. A pattern had been established. When Nadal broke to lead 4-2 in the second set , that was pretty much that.