The world saw this sort of listless, lackluster Djokovic two months ago in the final at Wimbledon, where Nadal had exited a Grand Slam tournament in the opening round for the only time in his career. That time, Djokovic went through a difficult semifinal — at 4:43, the longest in Wimbledon history — and barely put up much resistance in a straight-set loss to Andy Murray two days later.
In New York, Djokovic was coming off another four-hour semifinal victory, and the key stat in the first set Monday was that he made 14 unforced errors, 10 more than Nadal.
There were no surprising or innovative tactics from Nadal. In the simplest of terms, he reached nearly every ball Djokovic delivered, and Nadal's replies nearly never missed the intended spot, accented by his huge uppercut of a swing and loud grunts of "Aaaah!"
By match's end, Djokovic had made 53 unforced errors, Nadal only 20.
"Credit to my opponent. He was making me run," said Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in January and will remain No. 1 in the world rankings despite Monday's loss. "I had my ups and downs."
The Serb's biggest ups came in the second set. Nadal was broken a grand total of once through his first six matches in the tournament — a string that reached 88 games by early in the final's second set. But with Djokovic raising his level, and gaining control of more of the many extended exchanges, he broke Nadal three times in a row.
The first came for a 4-2 lead in the second set, thanks to the crescendo of the longest point of these two weeks, which ended when Nadal's backhand found the net on the 55th stroke.
Djokovic used superb defense to elongate the point, tossing his body around to bail himself out repeatedly by blunting Nadal's violent strokes. When the memorable point ended, Djokovic bellowed and raised both arms, and thousands of fans rose to their feet, chanting his nickname, "No-le! No-le!"
Now Djokovic was energized, and Nadal was suddenly in a tad of trouble.
But the final momentum swing came with Nadal serving at 4-all in the third set. Djokovic earned three break points, thanks in part to a tremendous lob-volley and another point when Nadal slipped and tumbled to his backside.
But a quick forehand winner by Nadal, a forehand into the net by Djokovic on a 22-stroke point, and a 125 mph ace — Nadal's only one of the evening, it drew shouts of "Vamos!" from his uncle-slash-coach Toni — helped avoid another break.
"I didn't do anything I felt (was) wrong in these few points," Djokovic said. "He didn't make a mistake."
In the very next game, Nadal broke Djokovic's serve and, apparently, his will. When that set ended with Djokovic pushing a forehand long on a 19-shot point, Nadal screamed as he knelt down at the baseline, his racket on the court and his left fist pumping over and over and over again.
Djokovic made one last serious stand, holding break points in the fourth set's first game, but Nadal saved those, then immediately broke to go ahead 2-0.
Once again, Nadal withstood Djokovic's best and was on his way to another Grand Slam celebration.
"It's what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit," Djokovic said. "That's the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end."
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