Rafael Nadal, the Spanish tennis artist and world No. 1 player with the big biceps and the blink-and-you-miss forehands, won his third U.S. Open title Sunday, a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 victory over South African Kevin Anderson on Arthur Ashe Stadium court, under an open roof and in front of 25,755, which included plenty of bold-face names.
Anderson, the tournament’s No. 28 seed, and a 6’8 lanky, high-octane server who was playing in his first Grand Slam singles final, brought a booming serve and plenty of game, but even his long frame couldn’t catch up with Nadal’s punishing returns, despite long lunges. Nadal also had the glittery Slam resume entering the final and the experience gave the 31-year-old Spaniard a huge edge.
On match point, and with Nadal serving, Anderson hit a backhand return that Nadal chased at the net. With smooth precision, Nadal sliced a backhand volley to the other corner that Anderson had no chance of chasing down, and after two hours, 27 minutes, Nadal raised his arms in triumph. It was the seventh time in the Open era that a Slam final was decided by two players over the age of 30. Anderson is also 31. Nadal now has 16 Grand Slam singles titles, and also won the Open in 2010 and 2013.
“There’s no better way to finish the Grand Slam season for me,” said Nadal, who received a check for $3.7 million to go along with his championship trophy. “It was a great two weeks, increasing my level of tennis.” For the 2017 season, Nadal reached the final in three majors, losing the Australian Open to Roger Federer, and winning the French Open (over Stan Wawrinka) and the U.S. Open.
Nadal got an early taste of those big Anderson serves in the very first game of the match. Anderson whacked a 136 mph serve for deuce and then won the game on a 128 mph heater. But Nadal adjusted to Anderson’s serve, and after the loss, the South African called Nadal, “one of the best defenders in our sport.”
“I felt pretty good out there,” said Anderson, who played college tennis at the University of Illinois. “It was more the conundrum of playing Rafa. He’s a hell of a competitor.”
In the third game of the first set, with Anderson on serve, the two players played to a deuce No. 6, but Nadal first hit a forehand wide, and then launched a return into the stands to drop the game. The game took 12 minutes to complete, and Nadal missed two break chances, including after he gained the advantage with a backhand that sailed over the towering Anderson’s head and landed in – no easy feat. But on the ensuing point, Nadal smoked a forehand into the net for deuce No. 2.
It wasn’t until seventh game of the first set when Nadal finally got the first break of the match. At deuce, Anderson double-faulted – he had four in the match – and then lost the game when he sprayed a forehand wide. On set point, Nadal hit a backhand volley at the net after a long rally, and punctuated the win by pumping his arms.
Nadal had received the loudest cheers even before he entered the court, when the jumbo screens showed him coming up the tunnel. But Anderson had some fan support too, with one male fan in the nosebleeds shouting, “C’mon Kevin” early in the match. There were also plenty of customary "Vamos Rafa!" chants.
The men’s Open final drew some heavy hitters from business, sports and entertainment: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, 14-time golf major champ Tiger Woods, newly crowned women’s Open champion Sloane Stephens, crooner Tony Bennett, model Christie Brinkley, Jerry Seinfeld, actresses Candice Bergen and Hilary Swank, and actor Matt Dillon.
Nadal needed until the sixth game of the second set to break Anderson, and he did so in thrilling fashion. The Spaniard rushed the net and hit two volleys that Anderson returned. On the third volley, Nadal left no doubt with a forehand smash to win the point. On set point, Nadal hit a cross-court forehand slice to go up two sets to love.
Anderson had 10 aces overall, but he was often undone by unforced errors, and racked up a whopping 40 while Nadal only had 11. Nadal was 4-of-9 on break points compared with Anderson’s zero. In the clinching third set, Nadal broke Anderson in the first game, and the two held serve for the remainder of the set. Anderson fought Nadal to deuce in the decisive tenth game, but Nadal first served a 117 mph missile that Anderson barely got a racket on, and then Nadal finished the match with the final volley.
Nadal’s 16 major titles are three shy of tying the Swiss legend Federer, who has 19. Federer and Nadal have never met at the Open, and this year, Federer was ousted in the quarterfinals by Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, who then lost to Nadal in the semis.