Yet, as this year’s grand slam season closes, Nadal is back as the world No 1 – and by a country mile – Federer is behind him in second place and between them, they have carved up the four major tournaments: Federer won the Australian Open and Wimbledon and Nadal took the French Open and, on Sunday night, he demolished Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 to win the US Open.
Nadal was relentless, he was ruthless and he was everything Anderson knew he would be.
Both men are 31 and yet, as Anderson put it: “I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life. You’ve been an idol of mine. It’s tough playing you. You proved it again tonight.”
As he won his third New York trophy and his 16th career grand slam title, Nadal was lightning fast to chase down every shadow, he served more consistently – if not as powerfully – as Anderson and he returned better than the South African. As for attacking the net, Nadal was pitch perfect. Sixteen times he came forward, 16 times he won the point. Just to prove his point, his title-winning shot was a backhand volley.
There was not an inch of the court that Anderson could call his own and, after a little under two-and-a-half hours, the tall man succumbed to the inevitable and Nadal was crowned the king of New York. Again.
The look of sheer joy on Nadal’s face when it was over was different. Usually, when he wins a final, he falls on his back and looks a little emotional before running to commiserate with his beaten rival. This time, he stood in the middle of the Arthur Ashe Stadium with his fists aloft and a smile so wide, it could be seen from space.
He knew he was playing well enough to win the Australian Open but Federer snatched the title away. He knew the French Open was there to be won if he could stay fit. Wimbledon was always going to be a struggle because Nadal’s knees can no longer stand the bending and lunging of grass court play. But New York? This was where he knew he could win again.
“It’s just unbelievable what happened this year after a couple of years with some troubles – injuries, some moments playing not good,” Nadal said. “Yeah, since the beginning of the season, I have been with emotion because I think I have been playing at a very high level of tennis. And to close the grand slams here, winning in New York, that is one of the events that brings me to the higher energy of the world because the crowd here is just unbelievable. They make me feel so, so happy.”
The win brought to an end one of the greatest coach-player partnerships that the sport has ever seen. As of the end of this year, Uncle Toni, the man who has guided Nadal since he was three years old, is hanging up his track suit. At the age of 56, he has had enough of the travel and grind and he wants to devote himself to Nadal’s academy in Majorca.
The coaching transition will be seamless, though. This year, Carlos Moya has been added to the team and he will now stand beside Francisco Roig as Nadal’s lead coach – and he has plans for many more years of success ahead.
“Rafa probably understands the game better now than when he was 20,” Moya said. “When he was 20 he was in a different condition. Now he is 31, you don’t have the same physical conditions and qualities, but you have to find a way to still be competitive. Understanding the game is the key to play at this level at this stage of his career. Probably he is a bit slower than he was, but he understands, he anticipates, he plays the shot because he knows what is the next shot he wants to hit, and that’s like a chess game. He is trying to evolve from that and he is doing it.”
The rivalry with Federer, that head-to-head battle that has been going on for a dozen years, is still bringing the best out of Nadal. And out of Federer. Nadal lost three times in a row to the Swiss at the start of the year and that, in Moya’s eyes, was one of the driving forces behind his charge’s results this season.
“They make each other better,” Moya said. “For Rafa, having that challenge, it’s something that for sure makes you evolve, makes you improve, and try to look at some of the things that Federer is doing, because what he has done this year at 36 is unbelievable.
“You always try to learn from the top guys, from Djokovic, from Murray, from whoever.
“We are open to them and Federer is a guy you can learn a lot from.”
Provided the two old warhorses can stay healthy, it seems that the age of the two greats is far from done.