Last year, Novak Djokovic made his second career run to the US Open final, overcoming a two-set deficit in his first round match, defeating five-time champion Roger Federer in the semifinals in five sets and then played a solid final against Rafael Nadal, despite a loss.
Since then he has not made any major changes to his game, but wins and more experience like those, changed his mental approach to facing other top players. He is hitting shots he did not in the past few years, and with more aggression and confidence, and made a change in his diet in the offseason to being gluten-free.
The result has been one of the greatest years in the history of tennis, which Djokovic made even greater Monday.
Djokovic battled back problems but used his superior return game, defense and speed to play with confidence to defeat the 10-time Grand Slam champion Nadal, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1, to win his first career US Open crown and fourth Grand Slam title in a match featuring spectacular shot-making and many unbelievable rallies. With the win, he pushed his record on the year to an amazing 64-2 and 6-0 over Nadal. He also had a 43-match win streak stemming from last year's Davis Cup final until his loss to Federer in this year in the French Open semifinals.
With the win he also became just the sixth man in the Open Era to win three Grand Slam titles in the same year, after winning both the Australian Open and Wimbledon (over Nadal) earlier this season.
“It really seems unreal,” Djokovic said of his victory. “I think most of the strokes are the same that they were in last two, three years. I'm going for it, I'm more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major events, especially when I'm playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger.
“In last couple of years that wasn't the case," he added. "I was always kind of trying to wait for their mistakes or being out there and playing my best tennis and not really having the positive attitude and kind of believing that I can win.”
After losing the Wimbledon final to Djokovic, Nadal had said he needed to play more aggressive and confident against Djokovic in order to beat him.
But on Monday, it was Djokovic who again played more aggressive for most of the match and with most of the confidence, as he was seemingly everywhere around the court, tracking down shot after shot and hitting extremely deep, which forced Nadal to play way behind the baseline at times and then leave balls too short in the court for Djokovic to crush.
The match featured an extraordinary amount of service breaks, as Djokovic had 26 break-point chances and broke Nadal 11 of those times, which was the most times the great Spaniard had been broken in 163 career Grand Slam matches.
Nadal also had 14 break-point chances against the Serb, converting on six of them, but a big problem was his inability to capitalize on most of those leads, as he struggled serving, especially in the first two sets, and for the match won just 52 percent of his first serves, compared to 65 percent for Djokovic, who felt on from the beginning.
“I felt great. Maybe it is the best match I played in the US Open so far this year,” he said. “I stepped on the court believing I can win, and I was hitting the balls from the baseline really strong and flat. I didn't give him any comfort, any rhythm. I was kind of trying to keep the control of the match; it was working well.”
The Spaniard had his first lead with a break in the second game on a Djokovic error into the net, but in a pattern to be seen throughout the match, the next game Djokovic broke right back and won six straight games to close out the first set.
Nadal came out and held in his opening game of the second set and showed more of his trademark intensity as Djokovic committed five unforced errors by midway through the second game, in which Nadal had three break points. He was able to save two of them, but Nadal grabbed the last and seemingly the momentum with a hard, deep shot to the right corner that Djokovic could only lunge at for a 2-0 lead.
The momentum, however, was short-lived.
Nadal took the ball to serve for a 3-0 lead and soon after the third game started, it was clear it was going to be no ordinary game. Down 0-30, Nadal won a 21-point exchange when Djokovic hit a cross-court shot wide after some fantastic defense from both players.
Djokovic held his first break point at 30-40, but Nadal was able to save it after another great exchange when Djokovic hit a forehand into the net. He earned his first game point then with a forehand winner but could not close it out in what turned into a game lasting 17 minutes, 15 seconds, featuring eight deuces and six break points for Djokovic and two game points for Nadal, and the best shot-making and defense of the match to that point.
The game went to its eighth deuce when Nadal hit a forehand winner moving in, and then Djokovic gained his sixth break-point chance when the Spaniard double faulted. And this time he converted, after another long point, with another defensive show, as he made a great defensive stab at a ball to hit it high into the air, which Nadal got a racquet on but missed the overhand volley into the net to bring the set back on serve 2-1 and take back the momentum.
Nadal knew he had opportunities in the match that he was unable to take, but also knew he tried and fought his hardest.
“I had my chances. I really had my chances. At the beginning of the first I had two games to love. The first set was playing really the well beginning, and I lost a little bit the way how to play and lost a little bit the rhythm,” he said of the first set. “Happened the same in the second set. You know, with that very, very long game, finally I had a mistake with the smash. So few tough points for me during the match. He's doing well. He always did well in these kind of surfaces.”
After two love holds to open the third, Djokovic struck again, taking more chances than Nadal, as he had consistently to that point. He took an early 2-1 lead but was unable to hold it too long, however, as Nadal broke back in the next game after the Serb saved two break points. But on Nadal’s third opportunity, Djokovic serve-and-volleyed and missed into the net to bring it back on serve at 2-all.
But once again, Djokovic responded. In one of the hardest-hitting rallies of the match, Djokovic caught up to a Nadal shot that landed just in the left corner, a shot that Nadal was unable to return, hitting a backhand wide down the line to give the Serb the break and a 3-2 lead.
This time it was Djokovic who was unable to hold the lead, quickly going down 0-40 in his next service game on his first double fault of the match, and Nadal converted the break on his first opportunity, smacking a winner down the right line for 3-all.
Nadal then played a confident service game, which he had been lacking earlier in the match. He hit a winner down the left line for 4-3 and tested Djokovic in his next game, earning a break point. But the world No. 1 beared down after some amazing defense from both players, and some great Nadal shots that somehow landed inside the lines after it looked like Djokovic had put him away. But Djokovic was able to save the point with a backhand winner down the right line. A few points later he held when Nadal hit a return long.
The set stayed on serve until the 11th game, when Djokovic earned a break point with a forehand volley winner and then took a 6-5 lead with a winner down the right line to serve for the match.
But Nadal kept fighting. With another spectacular defensive effort from both players, he kept Djokovic on the run, as the Serb tracked down shot after shot, but Nadal finally hit a backhand winner down the left line for 15-30. Djokovic was two points from winning the match at 30-30, but he then hit a backhand long to give Nadal a break point, and the set moved to a tiebreak when Djokovic hit a forehand wide.
And the Spaniard then continued to play with confidence that he had been missing earlier in the match, as he dominated the tiebreak from the beginning with four errors from Djokovic in four of the first five points, and then a forehand winner from Nadal to the left made it 5-1 and he never trailed.
After the tiebreak, Djokovic had the trainer come out to treat a mid-back muscle strain on the left side of his back. It continued to bother him during the first game of the fourth set, as he stretched during points and after hitting a volley winner to win the game and then took an official medical timeout for more treatment as he had his back massaged, left leg massaged and lower back stretched.
But he persevered, taking a 2-0 lead in the fourth on his fifth break-point chance with a forehand winner and was taking speed off his serves from earlier in the match to compensate for his back, which he thought was the right move. The fourth set progressed on serve, and he allowed just one point in his next two service games to go up 4-1.
As he took the ball to serve for the match again up 5-1, this time he did not falter, smacking a forehand winner to close out his first title in New York.
“I felt the most discomfort and pain with my serve, so I tried to go more for the precision rather than for speed,” he said. “I think that actually helped me to get into the rally better, because he was expecting maybe a bit stronger serve so he was returning short and I was taking my chances.”
Nadal knew his serve was a liability in the match for him, credited Djokovic’s game this year, and despite his disappointment at the loss, thought he had a successful Grand Slam year with one title and three finals and felt better about this match than the loss at Wimbledon.
“His return is fantastic always, not this year,” Nadal said. “And second thing, my serve worked bad tonight. That's the true. If I have to say two things about I'm not happy tonight, it's my serve for sure the first one. Because if my serve works really well, I know I have the challenge, the mental challenge for sure.
“I was in the final of Wimbledon, final of US Open. I fighted both of them, especially this one,” he added. “I go back to Spain more happy today than after the Wimbledon final, because after here I think I am on the right way to try to win him. After Wimbledon I didn't feel that. He did really well. Last year I won three Grand Slams; this year I won one. I played three finals, and I think I played the last six, eight Grand Slams I played around semifinals. So for me is a fantastic result.”
It was an even better result, of course, for Djokovic this season, who is proud of what he has been able to do this season and in his career after so much hard work, and he hopes to just keep it going.
“Right now I'm all over positive emotions. It's really hard to find the words that can describe the feeling that I had and that I have still. But I know this couldn't come overnight. It's a long process,” he said. “Throughout all my life I've been working, being committed to this sport 100 percent. That's the only the way you can really succeed: the right balance between private life and life on tour, which is very requiring, demanding.
“But this is something that I love to do, and it brings me joy every single time I step on the court and make a win,” he added. “Nothing can replace that feeling.”