If you don’t recall, this is what the ATP rankings looked like at the beginning of 2011:
Of course, narratives don’t always play out the way they’re expected to. As we know now, Novak Djokovic, who was a whopping 1-6 against Federer and Nadal in 2010, put together one of the most incredible streaks in tennis history, winning 43 straight matches before Federer stopped him at Roland Garros.
Djokovic had beaten Nadal in five straight finals in 2011 before the US Open, in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, and Wimbledon.
While it was clear that Djokovic was the hottest player on the ATP Tour after the first few months of the year, Nadal (still ranked No. 1) found himself facing questions like this just days after after winning his sixth Roland Garros title:
Q. If you look on the Wimbledon website today, the most popular story is you being toppled as No. 1 if you don’t win this tournament and that you may be a man in decline. Do you feel like a man in decline?
RAFAEL NADAL: Me?
RAFAEL NADAL: Maybe. But I won Roland Garros two weeks ago. I don’t forget (smiling). Maybe you or the website yes. After winning Roland Garros, two weeks later is a little bit fast to say I am. You can say that maybe next year, but probably now is a little bit dangerous to say that.
But, no, you know, is my seventh year without be out of the top two. Is a lot of years. Probably I started to be decline, but hopefully not. Maybe they are right. I don’t know.
After their last match before the US Open, the Wimbledon final, a downcast Nadal talked about his recent failures against Djokovic.
“Is true we can analyze that my game is not bothering him,” Nadal said. “We have to find how I can bother him another time. I did in the past.”
The US Open final presented itself as an opportunity for Nadal to have another try at beating his foe, although he was a heavy underdog, given the playing surface.
From the moment Nadal cracked his first serve down the T for 15-0, Djokovic brutalized any shot from the Spaniard that landed inside the service box.
No shot was a winner against Djokovic as he raced to a 6-2, 6-4 lead. With each point, the gulf between Djokovic and Nadal seemed to grow. Nadal, one of tennis’ fiercest competitors, was getting routined in a Grand Slam final, and he wasn’t even playing poorly.
But instead of allowing his will to be broken in front of a stadium full of disappointed fans hoping for a match, Nadal summoned up the courage to battle his unbeatable opponent on even ground. What followed was one of the greatest sets of tennis ever played.
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Free points on Nadal’s serve had eluded him for the first two sets of the match, so he knew he’d have to be patient and win some of the longer rallies. He cracked a backhand winner, picking his spot beautifully in his first service game for 30-0.
As Nadal began his second service game, it was hard for him to win points against Djokovic when he was winning points like this one. Djokovic stepped into the court and made the Spaniard pay for his defensive mindset. Djokovic was a brick wall.
After several hours of near-invincibility, Djokovic strung together a couple errors on his next service game.
Djokovic continued to make life difficult for the Spaniard on the return, taking any opportunity to step into the court to create sharp angles.
Helped by some better serving, Nadal easily held for 5-4. The finish line was in sight to get to a fourth set if he could only break one more time.
Met with a chance to get to set point on Djokovic’s serve, Nadal punched his racquet after missing a forehand wide.
Back to work on serve, Nadal showed resourcefulness up at the net.
He hit two positively monstrous forehands to get another minibreak for 5-1. He was inspired now.
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In the end, Djokovic rightfully won this match, sealing his stellar year with a US Open title. The fourth set was tragically uncompetitive, considering how outstanding the quality of tennis was during the third. But brilliance is often unsustainable.
Still, I vividly recall watching the final, astonished by what I was seeing. Having watched so much tennis in my life, I have a tendency to be jaded. Going in, I doubted that yet another final between Djokovic and Nadal would prove to be memorable. I was completely wrong. I couldn’t take my eyes off this match. For me, it took tennis to new heights.