Rafael Nadal: Clay legend—and one of the greatest US Open champs ever

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Rafael Nadal beat Kevin Anderson in straights for his third Open and 16th major title. (AP)

NEW YORK—Three thoughts on Rafael Nadal’s 16th Grand Slam singles title, earned with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Grand Slam final neophyte Kevin Anderson:

1. It’s the summer of 2010. Nadal has just won his second Wimbledon and eighth major title. His best showings at the US Open were a pair of semifinals, in 2008 and 2009, in which he was soundly defeated and looked worn down from exhaustively successful seasons of brutally effective tennis.

What odds would have compelled you to bet that, by the time Nadal’s illustrious career would end, the US Open would be his second-most fruitful major?

Seven years and eight more majors later, it’s looking like things will turn out that way. In his last six US Opens, Nadal has won the tournament three times and finished runner-up once. He hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon—which he’s won twice—since 2011, and while the 31-year-old is always a contender at the Australian Open, he’s only once completed it victorious.

That 2009 run Down Under may have seen Nadal at his peak, but this US Open will go down as one of Nadal’s more noteworthy performances. After a summer of frustrating shortcomings (15-13 in the fifth at Wimbledon to Gilles Muller; 7-6 in the third in Montreal to Denis Shapovalov; a straight-sets loss to Nick Kyrgios in Cincinnati), Nadal made good on his last chance in North America during a renaissance season.

He wasn’t flawless—he needed four sets to escape both the second and third rounds. He didn’t have a beat a player seeded higher than 24th. But he was still brilliant. Nadal's last six sets: 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. When you save your best for last, you typically win in tennis. Nadal saved some of his best tennis of the entire year for his sizable New York fan base.

The first tournament that everyone will associate Rafa with is Roland Garros, and rightfully so. But the 10-time French Open champion must also be considered one of the greatest US Open champions ever, too.

Men's final highlights:

2. Mr. Anderson, take a bow. As any sports fan will attest, some of the hardest victories are the games and matches you’re 'supposed' to win. After an apocalyptic first two rounds in the bottom half of the men's draw, anyone who survived could have made the case that this US Open was the biggest opportunity of his career. Most players didn’t hide that fact.

But only Anderson made the most of that opportunity, even if final-round comeuppance was the likely outcome. The 31-year-old South African has the kind of one-note game that has troubled Nadal at Slams in the past—huge serve, giant forehand. But Anderson didn’t deploy those weapons often or reliably enough on Sunday. It was a tepid performance, and there was also Nadal’s famously impenetrable defense to account for. The Spaniard stood so far back to return Anderson’s first serves that you could hardly see his body over the back wall inside giant Arthur Ashe Stadium:

Once Nadal got his racquet on the ball, he was able to not only put it in play, but hit it deep. Anderson won just 73 percent of his first-serve points and a paltry 36 percent of his second-serve points. Rushing to the baseline to engage Anderson in rallies he would dominate, Nadal completely neutralized his opponent's biggest advantage. Although, when you consider Anderson’s grand total of zero break points, perhaps the serve was Nadal’s advantage all along.

We didn’t see the emotional fury—in relative terms—from Anderson today, but we won’t forget his breakthrough tournament, and surely he won’t either.

3. So who’s had the better season: Nadal, or Roger Federer? They’ve split the Slams and have each won five tournaments, but Nadal will leave the US Open as the No. 1 player on tour.

Had Nadal prevailed over Federer in the semifinal that wasn’t, you could make the case that the answer is Rafa. But ironically, for the same reason that many still hold Nadal’s career over Federer’s—the head-to-head record that’s firmly in Rafa’s favor, 23 to 14—it’s Federer who must still receive the nod in 2017. One third of Nadal’s nine losses this season have come against Federer; it's a stat that can’t be ignored.

So it's Federer—for now. But Nadal will have an opportunity to change that. Federer, who has no rankings points to defend for the rest of the year, has said that he’ll play his previously planned schedule of fall tournaments. There will be plenty of chances for Nadal and Federer to collide again, with much at stake, including this distinction.

No matter how you look at it, though, Team Europe at the forthcoming Laver Cup is looking pretty good after the four majors.

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