SAM BROOKES | 25th August 2020

2020 has been a difficult year for tennis. With the world of sport looking at how it can adjust to the restrictions put in place thanks to the pandemic, tennis has done itself few favours. Be it Novak Djokovic’s ill-informed comments or tournaments being organised that have left players and coaches exposed to contracting the virus, it has not been a period of time to look back on with much fondness. Still, there remains some hope that we will get to see plenty of entertainment before the year is done and dusted. The second Grand Slam major of the year gets underway next week as the US Open takes centre stage. However, there is yet more bad news.

Roger Federer will miss the tournament as he recovers from a knee problem. The Swiss icon will be joined on the sidelines by his great rival Rafael Nadal, who has opted not to make the journey to Flushing Meadows, citing safety fears as the US struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The Spaniard’s absence is a major blow for the tournament’s organisers and will mean that Nadal cannot add to his 19 Grand Slam titles. Yet he does already have plenty of happy memories to look back on from his previous visits to New York.

One of those came ten years ago when he won his first US Open and completed his ‘Golden Slam’ in the process. Back in 2010, Nadal was at his imperious best, proving beyond doubt that he is a true great of the game.

Let’s look back on that fortnight and what preceded it, as Nadal wrote his name in the history books.

Charting Nadal’s rise

When Nadal arrived on the scene in the mid-2000s, he was already physically mature and his clay-court game was already almost unbeatable but there were concerns that his skills might not translate to the other surfaces on the tour.

He picked up four straight French Open championships between 2005 and 2008 without lifting any of the other majors, but things took a turn for the better.

Rafa showed his adaptability later in 2008 by capturing his maiden Wimbledon title and then claiming Olympic gold on the hard courts of Beijing. Nadal was now the complete package.

A 19-year old Rafa was an absolute unit

Entering 2009, he required just the Australian and US Open crowns to complete a clean sweep of the major championships. He ticked the first of these off his list within the first month of the year, defeating Federer in a dramatic five-set thriller in Melbourne.

Having started as a baseline specialist on the slow clay courts, Nadal had developed into a player who could match anyone on any surface. The US Open had eluded him again, but heading into 2010, he was desperate to put that right.

Reclaiming his crowns

Before he could set his sights on New York, Nadal had the small matter of attempting to win back the French Open and Wimbledon after relinquishing both majors in 2009. Rafa had achieved the former with minimal fuss and he had won all three Masters events prior to the French Open.

At Roland Garros, he did not even drop a set and exorcised some demons by beating Robin Söderling in the final, the man who had handed him his first Roland Garros defeat 12 months earlier.

Wimbledon was not quite so straightforward. The little-known Philipp Petzschner threatened to derail his plans in the third round, but Nadal showed his mettle and battled through in five sets. That appeared to be the wake-up call that he needed as he went on to find his best form later in the competition, eventually seeing off Tomas Berdych to win his second Wimbledon title.

The Golden Slam

Nadal had all the momentum on his side. However, his defeats at the Western and Southern Open as well as the Roger’s Cup leading up to the US Open, where he fell to an unseeded Marcos Baghdatis and defending champion Andy Murray respectively, raised doubts on whether he could achieve the unprecedented Golden Slam just yet.

The Spanish southpaw often takes his time to settle into tournaments and the 2010 US Open was no different. He needed two tie-breaks to see off Teymuraz Gabashvili in the opening round, and another one to get past Denis Istomin two days later.

By the third round, Nadal was starting to show that he was a class apart. Frenchman Gilles Simon was dispatched for the loss of just eight games and Feliciano Lopez only picked up one more game in the last 16. It was going to take a monumental effort to oust Nadal at this stage.

Fellow countryman Fernando Verdasco tried his best in the quarter-finals, but became the fifth straight player to fail to take a set off Nadal.

Mikhail Youzhny had edged past Stanislas Wawrinka in his own last eight contest, but was no match for the No.1 seed in the semi-finals. Nadal was through to his first US Open final without dropping a set.

His dominant run to the final was aided by his dramatically improved serve which blew away opponents through the tournament. He had been struggling on serve prior to the tournament and recognized that as a key area he would have to improve upon to have any chance of success at Flushing Meadows.

Astonishingly, he changed his service grip just two days before the tournament, clocking first serves over 130 mph with great consistency. That speed and accuracy with which he was serving meant that he only dropped two sets in the run up to the final. Now only Novak Djokovic stood between him and history.

Given his success in the years since, it is amazing to think that Djokovic only had one Grand Slam title to his name heading into this final. This meant that Nadal was the favourite, and he lived up to that billing by winning the first set 6-4.

Yet Djokovic is never one to fold and he levelled the score by earning a decisive late break to take the second set 7-5. Finally, Nadal was being pushed. There remained little to choose between the two superstars in the following set, but it was the Spaniard who secured a vital break of serve to move to within a set of victory.

Djokovic’s resolve was broken as Nadal raced through the final set 6-2. The winning moment summed up the match with Nadal producing a couple of impressive defensive strokes to stay in the point, forcing Djokovic to drag a forehand wide. Nadal collapsed to the ground in trademark fashion as he joined Andre Agassi as the only two male players to have achieved the Golden Slam.

The Years Since

2010 was arguably the greatest year of Nadal’s career to date. He has never won three grand slam titles in a year since. However, he has still had plenty of success over the past decade, adding seven more French Open wins and three further titles at Flushing Meadows to take his overall tally to 19.

Undoubtedly the greatest clay court player ever, Nadal has shown that he is more than just a one-trick pony. It is a shame that he will not be in New York to attempt to win a fifth US Open, but it is clear that Nadal still has plenty left to offer. Hopefully, it is not too long before we see him lighting up the courts once more.

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