It started out as a one-way street. Novak Djokovic up. Rafa Nadal down. The French Open champion fought back to the U.S. Open final for a fourth time, but this time was different.
The player with the golden right arm was incapable of putting away the champion with the golden left arm.
For Djokovic, the tearful opponent was Kei Nishikori. For Nadal, the wild man of the court who is more fond of reactions from the crowd than his tennis, was the hometown favorite Juan Martin del Potro.
The ghosts of Key Biscayne, both on and off the court, loomed large over this men’s final. It seemed like an impossible feat to pull off when Juan Martin del Potro defeated Federer in the semifinals, and it looked all but impossible when Djokovic couldn’t get in position to win an all-Serbian final in 2014.
This time, as Nadal won the first five points of the match, Djokovic could only look down at his racquet and quietly groan. Those howls from the crowd, and the chaos of full flights of stairs, could have sent any other player into a frenzy.
By the end of the second set, Nadal’s corner became a veritable ROTC center. Unlike his manager from the women’s final, there were no retired servicemen from Japan wandering around between rallies. The iconic stadium stand was unpopulated. The nearby Ritz-Carlton Terrace restaurant was empty, save for one dining table occupied by U.S. Ambassador to France Woody Johnson.
Nadal hopped onto his back like a child out for a ball of playing hopscotch, while fans were visibly frustrated and even booed the first time Djokovic hit a ball into the stands during changeovers.
It was a situation all too familiar in French Open. In 2009, Federer beat Nadal in five sets — all of them on Rod Laver Arena, all of them in a French Open final that became the 10th of the era.
Federer, the current world No. 1 and Wimbledon champion, actually grew upset with the booing.
“I think it’s his home court, I can appreciate that,” he said during his post-match press conference. “But I’m not sure that’s what’s going to bring tennis back there, because at the end of the day it’s not healthy for everybody.”
Less than two months ago, the paths of Djokovic and Nadal seemed destined to intersect at the Australian Open next year. Both had made their way through the final grand slam of the year without dropping a set. It felt a given that the two biggest winners of the last decade of men’s tennis would face off in a final.
But now, Nadal is without a chance to claim a 10th major title.
He arrived in New York in December 2015 ranked No. 1, and he remained there through the first half of the season. On Sunday, he could only look at the scoreboard — that’s how many times he faced an opponent ranked in the top five — as Djokovic won 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-4. Djokovic had never dropped a set to Nadal until Sunday.
The only consolation for Nadal, and an even greater disappointment, is that his two wins in New York have carried symbolic significance for the most illustrious era in tennis history. This was Nadal’s first Grand Slam final without having to overcome a top-five opponent since his second French Open in 2010.
“I think that’s the chance that most players dream to have — to be able to play in the final of a grand slam and to win the trophy,” Nadal said in his post-match press conference. “And I have it. So without my victories in these years in the finals of a grand slam, I don’t deserve the passion of the crowd, the love and passion that I got from my supporters.”