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Talent dazzles. It's the rare gift, the thing parents pray for, scouts seek and agents sign, but the mean fact about top-level tennis is that every player is fast and hypercoordinated. Talent comes cheap. Those who know the unique quiet that fills the dying days of a Grand Slam tournament locker room never talk about Rafael Nadal's speed or strokes, not at first anyway. They talk about his willingness to change, to put in the hours. They always begin with the work.
"It's the way he's adjusted his game," Kim Clijsters said after winning her third U.S. Open last Saturday with a 59-minute 6--2, 6--1 demolition of Vera Zvonareva. "When he won a few French Opens, everybody wasn't giving him a chance in any other Grand Slam. But all of a sudden at Wimbledon he's standing on top of the baseline and playing so well on grass. Even now you hear about him changing his serve three days before this Open. It's amazing. And that shows you the talent. He deserves to win. I want him to win."
But she and everyone else who came to New York City expecting to see, as Clijsters put it, "Nadal write some history" had to wait a bit longer than expected. After Sunday's steady rain pushed the final to Monday afternoon, Nadal, 24, won his third major of the year with a mesmerizing 6--4, 5--7, 6--4, 6--2 victory over Novak Djokovic. Then, before a full house of 23,771 at Arthur Ashe Stadium, he fell to the ground and wept.
"You know that's more than I dreamt," Nadal said on court. "Just to arrive in the final was amazing."
Now the debate begins in earnest. Though 29-year-old Roger Federer has won 16 Grand Slam singles titles to Nadal's nine, the fact that Nadal has now completed a career Grand Slam, owns a 14--7 head-to-head record against Federer and is the first man in 41 years to have won the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year will bring to a boil the long-simmering question of who is greater. Nadal won't touch it, not yet, but he isn't shy about saying what he has already taken from Federer.
"When he started to be Number 1, he always improves," said Nadal. "After two years being Number 1 he was a better player than before. That's something I need to do, too, no? If not, well, you always lose something. Maybe lose a little bit more inspiration."
It's that attitude that had made Nadal—a natural righthander who was raised on clay and once used his serve merely to start rallies—the best lefthander since Rod Laver, an all-surface player with one of the best volleys in the game, and a server whose average delivery had risen in the past year from 107 mph to 119. Then, in an August practice session before the Open, Nadal shifted the grip on his racket to stabilize his wrist and began popping serves in the low 130s. He was broken only five times in New York.
That Nadal's final victory came against Djokovic was, of course, the tournament's big letdown. Hopes of a first Rafa-Roger showdown in Flushing Meadow had been stoked throughout the fortnight, but Federer couldn't hold up his end. His five-set semifinal loss to Djokovic was great theater, but in the end it was Djokovic who held off two match points with his line-kissing, "I closed my eyes" forehands; Djokovic who pounded his chest after the most stirring win of his 23-year-old life, 5--7, 6--1, 5--7, 6--2, 7--5.
"I'm sorry for all the ones who wanted to see Roger and Rafa in the final," he said after, but he had nothing to regret. Djokovic fully earned his place in the championship match, and besides, the upset only underscored the confounding, End of Days feel at Flushing Meadow. There was the apocalyptic weather, which ranged from 110° heat on the courts to hurricane warnings to swirling, bizarrely relentless winds. There were the geopolitics: Venus Williams raged against the Dubai tournament's treatment of Israeli player Shahar Peer, and the Indo-Pakistani doubles team of Rohan Bopanna (a Hindu) and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi (a Muslim) campaigned to ease tension between their two nuclear-armed nations. There was the latest sign of Yankee decline: For the second straight year no American man made the quarterfinals, and no American woman made the final weekend. The U.S. Open has become the U.S. Closed.
Speaking of Americans, top-ranked Serena Williams didn't play because of foot surgery after a freak glass-stomping accident in Berlin in July. Her withdrawal relegated the women's tournament to an afterthought, but it also presented her sister with perhaps her last best chance to win. Though she rose to No. 2 earlier this summer, 30-year-old Venus Williams hadn't beaten a top five player all season. A tender left knee had kept her out of action since Wimbledon, but she mastered the conditions at Flushing Meadow and controlled her nerves enough to bull into the semifinals—and the tournament's marquee match—with Clijsters. Williams even won the first set, 6--4, but the fitter, quicker, more motivated Clijsters prevailed in the second-set tiebreak. As Williams served at 4--all, 30--all in the third set, her nerves unraveled, and she drilled a second serve two feet long. On break point, when Clijsters sent a gorgeous lob over her head, the racing Williams suddenly looked her age: slowing legs, desperate heaving. She lunged for the ball, vainly swiping at it like a collector trying to net one last, elusive butterfly. Moments later it was over.