Djokovic rumbles by Nadal in final

NEW YORK — Bothered by pain in his back, ribs and cramping legs, Novak Djokovic was face-down beside the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, getting massaged by a trainer.

Having dropped a set against defending champion Rafael Nadal, Djokovic’s grip on the U.S. Open final appeared to be in jeopardy, and worse, his body was breaking down.

His confidence? That, more than any particular stroke, is what Djokovic credits with transforming him from a top player to a great one — and it never wavered one bit Monday night.

Producing a nearly perfect performance to match his nearly perfect season, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic returned brilliantly, whipped winners from all angles and beat No. 2 Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 in a match chock-full of lengthy, mesmerizing points to earn the first U.S. Open championship of his career and third Grand Slam trophy of 2011.

"In big matches, the winner is decided by small margins, a couple points. I guess the winner is the one who believes in victory more," said Djokovic, who is 64-2 with 10 tournament titles this year.

"I guess it just clicked in my head. Through the last couple of years, I didn’t change my game in any major way. … But I’m hitting shots that maybe I wasn’t hitting," he explained. "I’m going for it. I’m more aggressive."

It’s sure working, particularly against the man he replaced atop the rankings, Nadal.

A year ago, it was Nadal who won three major titles, including a victory over Djokovic in the final at Flushing Meadows. That defeat helped Djokovic realize he was being too passive at key moments on his sport’s most important stages and set him on a path that’s led to one of the greatest seasons in the history of men’s tennis — or any sport, for that matter.

"I’ve had an amazing year," Djokovic said, "and it keeps going."

Nadal led their head-to-head series 16-7 at the end of 2010. And since? Djokovic is 6-0 against Nadal this year, all in tournament finals — three on hard courts, including Monday; two on clay; and one on grass at Wimbledon. Djokovic also won the Australian Open in January and is only the sixth man in the 40-plus years of the Open era to win three major titles in a single season.

"Obviously I’m disappointed," Nadal said, "but you know what this guy is doing is unbelievable."

With a couple of months left, Djokovic can set his sights on the best win-loss record in the modern era: John McEnroe went 82-3 in 1984, although that only included two Grand Slam titles, because he lost in the French Open final and didn’t enter the Australian Open. Roger Federer was 81-4 in 2005 with two majors, exiting twice in the semifinals. Rod Laver (1962, 1969) and Don Budge (1938) are the only men to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a year.

The biggest change Nadal has noticed in Djokovic?

"He’s confident enough in every moment to keep believing in one more ball, one more ball," Nadal said. "His forehand is not more painful than before. His backhand is not more painful than before. Serve’s the same."

Of all of Djokovic’s skills, the one that separated him the most Monday was his return. He repeatedly sent serves back at Nadal’s feet, forcing errors or giving Djokovic control of the point. That helped Djokovic accumulate an astounding 26 break points and convert 11.

Consider this: When Nadal completed his career Grand Slam by winning last year’s U.S. Open, he was broken a total of five times in seven matches. Another telling statistic: Four times Monday, Nadal broke Djokovic — only to have Djokovic break right back in the next game.

That’s exactly what happened in the third game of the second set, which lasted 17 minutes and featured a bit of everything: 22 points; eight deuces; six break points; a time violation warning against Nadal (Djokovic was admonished later in the set); complaints by both men that the glare from the stadium lights was bothersome; and seven exchanges that lasted at least 10 strokes.

After a 28-shot point, Djokovic leaned over and put his hands on his knees, his chest heaving. Nadal was the one who faltered, though. He double-faulted to set up break point No. 6, then — on a great defensive lob by Djokovic — put an overhead into the net.

More remarkable than all those breaks of serve was the way Djokovic seemed to break the will of the reliably relentless and indefatigable Nadal. At the end of the first set, when Djokovic reeled off six games in a row, and at the end of the match, Nadal wasn’t even chasing Djokovic’s shots.

"It was a tough match," said Nadal, who owns 10 major titles. "Physical, mental, everything."

Yes, and Djokovic turned this U.S. Open final rematch into something of a mismatch.

He entered this year with one Grand Slam title, at the 2008 Australian Open. Djokovic attributes his surge to a variety of factors, including a vastly improved serve, better fitness and mostly a seemingly endless reservoir of self-belief dating to December, when he led Serbia to its first Davis Cup title.

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