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‘Amazing’ Djokovic tops Nadal for record seventh Australian Open title

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Novak Djokovic was so good, so relentless, so pretty much perfect, that Rafael Nadal never stood a chance.

Djokovic reduced one of the greats of the game to merely another outclassed opponent — just a guy, really — and one so out of sorts that Nadal even whiffed on one of his famous forehands entirely.

In a remarkably dominant and mistake-free performance that yielded a remarkably lopsided result, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic overwhelmed Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 on Sunday night to win a record seventh Australian Open championship and a third consecutive Grand Slam title, raising his count to 15 overall.

“An amazing level of tennis,” Nadal acknowledged.

After dropping only four games in the semifinals, Djokovic spoke about being “in the zone.” Clearly, he did not budge from there, producing 34 winners and only nine unforced errors Sunday.

And this was against no slouch, of course: Nadal is ranked No. 2, owns 17 major trophies himself and hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament.

But Djokovic left Nadal smirking or gritting his teeth or punching his racket strings, unable to compete at all.

“Tonight,” Nadal said, “was not my night.”

So Djokovic added to previous triumphs in Melbourne in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, along with four at Wimbledon, three at the U.S. Open and one at the French Open.

He broke his tie with Roger Federer and Roy Emerson for most Australian Open men’s titles. He also broke a tie with Pete Sampras for third-most Grand Slam trophies; Djokovic only trails Federer, with 20, and Nadal.

And he is gaining on them.

“Sometimes, this tournament has been tough for me, in terms of injury,” said Nadal, who dropped to 1-4 in Australian Open finals, “and other times, in terms of opponents — like tonight.”

A sore right elbow cost Djokovic the last half of 2017. It contributed to a fourth-round loss in Melbourne a year ago, right before he decided to have surgery.

All that is in the past.

The 31-year-old Serb is once again at an elite level. If anything, the gap between him and the rest is growing right now.

“I’m just trying to contemplate on the journey in the last 12 months,” Djokovic said, mentioning what he called “quite a major injury.”

“To be standing now here in front of you today and managing to win this title and three out of four Slams is truly amazing,” Djokovic said. “I am speechless.”

Nadal also has dealt with all manner of health issues. He retired from his Australian Open quarterfinal and U.S. Open semifinal last year with right leg problems, had an offseason operation on his right ankle, and hadn’t competed in about four months when play began in Melbourne.

“It was so important to be where I am today, coming back from injury, and it’s good inspiration for me for what’s coming,” Nadal said. “I’m going to keep fighting hard to be a better player.”

Djokovic and Nadal know each other, their styles and their patterns all too well. This was their 53rd meeting — more than any other pair of men in the half-century professional era — and record-equaling 15th at a Grand Slam tournament. It was also their eighth matchup in a major final.

So there should not have been any mysteries out there on Rod Laver Arena’s blue court as they began with the temperature, which had topped 105 degrees (40 Celsius) in recent days, at a manageable 75 (25 C) and just a hint of wind.

Right from the start, though, this shaped up nothing like their only previous Australian Open title match, back in 2012, which Djokovic won in 5 hours, 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final in history.

Evenly matched as they were that night, this time was no contest. None whatsoever. It lasted a tad more than 2 hours.

Watching things swing so immediately and irrevocably in Djokovic’s direction really was rather hard to comprehend, as was how someone of Nadal’s experience and excellence could come out of the gate quite so poorly.

Nerves? Perhaps they played a role. So, of course, did Djokovic, whose defense was impenetrable.

No ball, no matter how well-struck, seemed to be out of Djokovic’s reach. He slid and stretched and occasionally even did the splits, contorting his body to get wherever he needed to.

Djokovic grabbed 13 of the first 14 points, including all four that lasted 10 strokes or more. A trend was established.

Of most significance, Nadal was broken the very first time he served Sunday. That gave Djokovic one more break of Nadal than the zero that the Spaniard’s five preceding opponents had managed combined. But none of them is Djokovic, the best returner in the game now — and maybe ever.

Not a shabby returner, either, Nadal could make no headway on this day. Djokovic won each of the initial 16 points he served and 25 of the first 26.

By the end of the second set, after 75 minutes of action, Djokovic had won nearly twice as many points (59-30), made more winners (23-14) and far fewer unforced errors (20-4), while taking 14 of 17 points that lasted at least 10 strokes.

The longest was a 22-shot point, which ended when Nadal netted a backhand to give Djokovic a set point at the end of the first. Djokovic raised his right fist and held it there while staring at his guest box.

He was on the right path. Nadal could do nothing to stop him.

Novak Djokovic wins U.S. Open, back atop tennis, after revealing hikes

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NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic completed his comeback summer, winning the U.S. Open for his 14th Grand Slam singles title on Sunday.

Djokovic mitigated the power of Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in a final that was tighter than the straight-set score — Djokovic led, 49 points to 48, after the 95-minute middle frame.

Djokovic dedicated it, “to the support of the loved ones, my kids, my wife, my small team of people that has been there with me through difficult times.”

The 31-year-old Serb tied Pete Sampras for third on the men’s career Slams list, trailing Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (17).

“The first actually thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was [Sampras’] first or second Wimbledon championship,” Djokovic said. “That inspired me to start playing tennis.”

Djokovic earned his second straight major title after winning Wimbledon two months ago. The Wimbledon crown was bigger. It marked his first Slam in 26 months, since he he held all four titles at once after the 2016 French Open.

Djokovic spent the better part of two years in a funk. He cited “private issues” in summer 2016, split from coach Boris Becker that fall, was coached by Andre Agassi for less than a year, missed the 2017 U.S. Open for an elbow injury, then underwent surgery to fix it in January.

It took a few months, but Djokovic rejoined the Big Three with Federer and Nadal with his Wimbledon crown in July. After the U.S. Open, no doubt he is back atop the sport, no matter he is third in the new ATP rankings behind the other titans.

At the start of 2017, as Djokovic faded, Federer and Nadal had their returns to the top by combining to win six straight Slams.

After Djokovic lost to 72nd-ranked Italian Marco Cecchinato in the French Open quarterfinals in June, he hiked in the French mountains with his wife for five days. He remembered one peak in particular that took three hours to scale.

“We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation,” Djokovic said. “I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me in a way. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport. The rest is history.”

Djokovic came back to win both summer Slams, going 22-1 in four tournaments from Wimbledon through the U.S. Open. He beat Nadal for the first time in two years at Wimbledon. He played Federer for the first time in two years, and swept him in Cincinnati last month.

Now, they make up the top three in the ATP rankings for the first time since May 2015.

“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer,” said Djokovic, who at this time a decade ago was 2-7 against Federer and 4-10 against Nadal. Now, he leads both head-to-heads. “Actually today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am.”

Del Potro made sure these last two weeks, if not this entire season, that he is part of the discussion moving forward. Playing all four Slams for the first time since 2012, he made the third round in Australia, the semifinals at the French and the quarters at Wimbledon. He faced Nadal in three of the four majors.

Del Potro reached a career-high ranking of No. 3, four wrist surgeries and eight years after becoming No. 4.

At 29, two years younger than Djokovic, he can see the Serb, plus Federer and Nadal, and know that playing title-worthy tennis in your 30s, after physical setbacks, is realistic.

Del Potro contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments and his ranking fell to No. 1,045.

At one point, the gentle giant missed 14 out of 28 Grand Slams in a seven-year stretch. What could have been if not for the wrist problems. If not for the presence of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who combined to win 47 of the last 55 majors.

“I don’t feel sad that I couldn’t win Grand Slams because of them,” del Potro said. “I am just one of the guys that have lucky to be in the same era as them.”

Djokovic stopped his trophy-presentation interview to congratulate his friend.

“For what he has done in the last four or five years,” Djokovic said. “Still having faith, having belief in himself that one day he’s going to be a top player, and he’s going to be fighting for Grand Slams. … I know that he’s going to be here again with the champion’s trophy.”

Del Potro has said the fans, those boisterous supporters in the Albiceleste jerseys, were his motivation to endure. They made their presence known inside a closed-roof Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday, forcing chair umpire Alison Hughes‘ refrain: Ladies and gentlemen, please.

A quote from del Potro after his breakthrough 2009 win here is again apropos today.

“I have new opportunities in the other Grand Slams to win, because if I did here, if I beat Nadal, Federer and many good players, maybe I can do one more time,” he said then. “But of course, will be difficult.”

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Rafael Nadal quits injured; Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro in U.S. Open final

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NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal retired from his U.S. Open semifinal with right knee pain that has dogged him on and off for years, sending Juan Martin del Potro into Sunday’s final against Novak Djokovic.

Nadal, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, mentioned retirement to the chair umpire midway through the second set, then threw in the towel after dropping the set. Del Potro had a 7-6 (3), 6-2 lead.

Later, the 13-time major winner Djokovic swept Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to reach his seventh U.S. Open final in his last eight appearances.

Nadal said that he first felt a knee problem in his second- or third-round match last week and that it acted up again Friday starting in the fifth game.

“I said to my box immediately that I felt something on the knee,” Nadal said. “After that, I was just trying to see if in some moment the thing can improve during the match. But no, was not the day.

Nadal’s right leg was taped just below the knee in the first set and again in the second, after he had ripped off the tape. The Spaniard winced and limped in the second set.

“Yeah, I waited as much as I can,” said Nadal, who played 15 hours, 54 minutes on court in his first five matches, his most ever en route to a Slam semifinal. “You could imagine very difficult for me to say goodbye before the match finish. But at some point you have to take a decision. It was so difficult for me to keep playing at the same time that way, having too much pain.

“That was not a tennis match at the end, no? It was just one player playing, the other one staying on the other side of the court.

“I hate to retire, but stay one more set out there playing like this will be too much for me.”

After del Potro won the set, Nadal took off his headband, sat down and pulled off his wristbands while a trainer spoke to him. He rose after a quick chat, shook the chair umpire’s hand and then told del Potro.

“When I saw him with bad movements [in the second set], I start to play aggressive, putting him running a lot. Then he decide to stop,” del Potro said. “I love to play with Rafa because he’s the biggest fighter in this sport. I don’t like to see him suffering on court like today, so I’m sad for him.”

The 32-year-old Nadal quit during a match for the second time in four Grand Slams this year. He pulled out during an Australian Open quarterfinal with an upper right leg injury against Marin Cilic in January.

Nadal has been forced out of tournaments due to left and right knee problems over the last decade, withdrawing before 2009 Wimbledon and the 2012 Olympics and during the 2010 Australian Open. Tendonitis has dogged him.

“I cannot compare the knee with other times because the pain on the knee is always very similar,” he said. “The problem is this time was something little bit more aggressive because was in one movement. Was not something progressive. So I don’t know what can happen in a couple of days or in a couple of weeks.

“Is not an injury that tells you six months off, you are back. Is maybe an injury that in one week you feel better, is an injury that maybe in six months you don’t feel better. I know what is going on with the knee.”

Still, he retains the No. 1 ranking no matter if del Potro or Djokovic lifts the U.S. Open trophy Sunday. In 2017, Nadal won his first Slams in three years (the French and U.S. Opens), then won his 11th French Open this year.

He is 45-4 this season, with half the losses being injury retirements.

“I know the things are going the right way,” Nadal said. “I am playing well. I am enjoying on court. I am having a lot of success. I am very competitive at the age of 32. Lot of people in this room, including myself, never will think that at the age of 32 I will be here fighting for titles, fighting for the first positions of the rankings.

“All my career everybody say that because of my style, I will have a short career. I still here.”

Del Potro, a 29-year-old Argentine who is no stranger to injury, made his second career Grand Slam final and his first since his epic run to the 2009 U.S. Open title.

Del Potro, who beat Nadal and Roger Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open, missed three of the last eight U.S. Opens due to left and right wrist surgeries. He contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments.

“I didn’t expect to get into another Grand Slam final,” del Potro said. “I had my biggest memories on the tennis court playing on this court … but I was a kid. Now I’m much older. I will try to enjoy one more day.”

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