Tennis Channel's exclusive interview with 2017 US Open champion Rafael Nadal
NEW YORK—They say you should never underestimate the heart of a champion. As Rafael Nadal showed in his flawlessly controlled 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win over Kevin Anderson in the US Open final on Sunday, you should never underestimate the unorthodox tactical decisions of a champion, either, no matter how often they’re questioned on TV or mocked on Twitter.
From the start, Nadal moved back as far as he possibly could to return the 6’8” Anderson’s powerful serve. Rafa was parked about a foot in front of the line judges, and on television he was little more than a black dot at the bottom of the screen. But as usual with Nadal, what looked like a dangerous ceding of territory was in reality a tactical retreat. It paid dividends right way, and would earn Rafa all the service breaks he needed—four in all.
By giving himself extra time and getting as many balls back as possible, Nadal made Anderson work, and work, and work some more to hold. Through four games, Anderson had played 13 deuce points on his serve, and he found himself mired in two games that lasted 10 or more minutes. To borrow a baseball phrase, that’s a high pitch count; any time you’re serving, you’re doing a lot more work than your opponent, especially if he’s holding easily as Nadal was today (he was never broken).
By the seventh game, Anderson was breathing hard and missing shots he normally wouldn’t miss. When he pulled a forehand wide at break point, the competitive part of the afternoon was essentially over.
“I think I played the right match, the match that I have to play,” Nadal said. “I put a lot of balls in. I let him play all the time, and that was my goal, no? To try to have long rallies, to try to have long points, because he will try to play short.
“Finally he missed that forehand with the 3-all. That changed the rest of the match.”
If Nadal’s returning was smart, his serving was close to perfect. Can you be a serve-bot—i.e., a Karlovic, or an Isner or a Raonic—while hitting just one ace? In 14 service games, Rafa didn’t face a break point, and only in the final game did Anderson push him to deuce. Anderson said he struggled to adapt to Nadal’s left-handed delivery, but this performance was also the result of a revamped serving philosophy that new coach Carlos Moya brought in when he joined Nadal’s team this year. Instead of pounding everything to his opponent’s backhand side, Rafa began to mix up his speeds, spins and locations. It made a major—literally—difference in his season: Nadal did some of his best serving at the two Slams he won, in New York and Paris.
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But that wasn’t the only place where Nadal showed off a veteran’s versalitity at the Open. From one match to the next, he put together and executed entirely different game plans. In his semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro on Friday, Nadal was forced to open up the court, go on the attack, and take risks; the result was his most dazzling shot-making display since the French Open. On Sunday, Nadal went in the opposite direction. Against Anderson, he played conservative, lockdown, don’t-do-anything-stupid tennis. But he didn’t just push the ball back in the court. Rafa finished with 30 winners and 11 errors, and he was a sparkling 16 for 16 at net. On the flip side, virtually every time Anderson ventured forward, Nadal dipped a passing shot at the big man’s feet; Anderson was just 16 of 34 at net.
“Rafa made it very difficult for me tonight,” Anderson said. “I felt he got a lot of returns back...I think he had a pretty good read on my serve.”
Anderson said the biggest problem for him wasn’t major-final nerves; it was the “conundrum” of playing Rafa. If he had won, it would have ranked among the most stunning upsets in US Open history. Even so, Anderson’s two-week run was impressive. At the advanced age of 31, he tapped into a more aggressive side of his personality, but he couldn’t fist-pump his way past the original fist-pumper.
“I know we’re the same age,” Anderson said in a trophy-ceremony tribute to Nadal, “but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life.” He said Rafa was one of his idols, and that he has made a great ambassador for the sport. The same, as this speech made clear, can be said for Big Kev, and it was good to see the gentlemanly South African take an unexpected turn in the spotlight.
In his press conference later, Anderson said something else interesting about what makes Nadal unique.
“I have seen so many times where he’s able to play every single point at such a high intensity,” Anderson said. “A lot of guys sometimes, you know, you might see them get angry at a line call and suddenly they start playing better tennis. I have never seen him—some external factor and suddenly he’s bringing better tennis. He brings that high energy every single point.”
Nadal would echo those thoughts a few minutes later, when he was asked how he had stayed so calm.
“I was not calm, no?” Nadal said. “I was nevous, but all the body language that is not in a positive way is stupid to make it, because it’s going to be against you, no?”
“Is one of the things that I tried to do all my life that the body language helps me, not go against me, no? Because is one of the things that depends just on me, not on the opponent, no? Was not the day to have negative body language. Completely the opposite...I have [to be] ready to accept all these moments to compete well all the tournament.”
Rafa needed his philosophy of relentlessness more than ever to achieve this victory, which was his third at the US Open and his 16th at a major. Before today, he hadn’t won a Slam outside of Roland Garros since 2013. But during those dry years, he accepted all the bitter five-set losses he had taken, and never failed to come into the interview room vowing to work even harder to “find a solution.” In the third round at this tournament, Nadal struggled for more than an hour to break Leonardo Mayer’s serve, but each time a break point was wiped away, he put his head down and tried to create another one.
“I had a lot of moments to be very frustrated in the match, and I have been not,” Rafa said after beating Mayer. “I have been just fighting for the next point and with the right mentality.” Nadal called that win a turning point in his Open, and he took the “right mentality” with him the rest of the way.
On Sunday, the man who helped instill that mentality in Rafa, his Uncle Toni, was in the stands, in his customary corner seat, living and dying with each point his nephew played. Toni began coaching Rafa when he was 4, and has been with him for all 16 of his Slam wins. They’re the greatest coach-player partnership in tennis history, but this was Toni’s last major; he has said he’s coming off the road at the end of the year.
But he hasn’t lost any of his fanatical coaching drive. During the last game, when Rafa was struggling to hold serve for the title, Toni stood and yelled toward him, so loudly that Moya laughed and patted him on the back when he sat back down. During the final point, as Rafa moved to the net for the winning volley, you could see Toni flinch with nerves as he swung; that’s a flinch everyone who has ever watched a family member play tennis knows all too well. When Rafa’s shot went for a winner, Toni stood and raised his arms. Then, as the trophy ceremony was starting, he turned and walked up the stairs and out of the arena.
The unorthodox tactics, the always-positive body language, the constant, unflagging energy and will to win: Toni taught his nephew as well as any coach has ever taught a player, and he leaves Rafa in very good hands—his own.