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Elizabeth Kaye | September 17, 2013

Call it a comeback

One year ago, it was uncertain if Rafael Nadal would ever be back among tennis' elite. Now he's the best player in the world, again.

It's pretty amazing, the similarities between tennis and football: the importance of footwork, the anticipation of what your opponent is going to do, the ability to forget about a bad play and move on.

But in football I can look at 10 other guys on the field and say, hey we need to pull it together. In tennis you're out there by yourself and you have to correct yourself and figure out what you're doing wrong ... or you're going home.

—former All-Pro defensive end Michael Strahan to ESPN tennis commentator Pam Shriver at the US Open

Players come to the US Open lugging baggage, mental baggage, that is, the kind packed with memories and urgent needs, with apprehensions and expectations, with barely acknowledged terrors and stubborn belief.  As porters of their own histories, the top guys - those few with a legitimate shot at the title - step onto the court buoyed or depleted by the recent past,  or determined to avenge it or hoping to forget it.

Like it or not, that past is inseparable from the present, thanks to a rankings system that operates on a 52-week rolling scale causing players to lose points unless they maintain or better their results from the previous year and assuring that a  player's most constant opponent is himself.

But a year is a dauntingly long time in a sport blighted by myriad pitfalls that range from unfavorable draws to finger blisters and windy weather. Consequently, as the 2013 US Open began, circumstances bore scant resemblance to the way things were at the start of the Open the year before. Back then, Novak Djokovic was the defending champion, Roger Federer was the world No. 1, Andy Murray had never won a Grand Slam, and Rafael Nadal was at home in Mallorca, nursing damaged knees and watching the event on television.

As this year's Open got underway, Djokovic was No. 1, Federer was No. 7,  Murray had two Slam trophies on his mantelpiece, one of which signified his status as the US Open's defending champion, and Nadal, fully recovered, was undefeated for the year on hard courts where he was producing the most aggressive tennis he'd ever played.

Anyone who knew anything about tennis would have told you the trophy was destined to be lifted by one of these four men. This was an eminently safe assumption given that, with the exception of Juan Martin del Potro's victory at the 2009 US Open, they'd collectively won 33 of the last 34 Grand Slams, a staggering affirmation of unyielding dominance, especially when you consider that the previous grouping of 34 Slams was won by 18 different players.

THE CONTENDERS

FEDERER

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No one has won more Slam titles than Federer, and the 17 he's amassed are the reason he was still counted as one of the so-called Big Four despite the precipitous drop of his ranking to its lowest point since his historic run began 10 years ago. Federer is a five-time US Open champion, but his last victory came in 2008 and if he doesn't snag another title this time out, it will be only the second time in those 10 stellar years that he hasn't won at least one Slam. This season has been one of startling losses and frustrations extreme enough to gnaw at a previously unshakable faith in himself that bordered on arrogance, and it was disconcerting to hear him talk about lacking confidence and to hear reporters insinuate it might be time for him to retire. But Federer was still proud and sufficiently presumptive to insist not only that he'll keep on playing but that he'll win more Slams.  This tournament would go a long way toward determining whether, at age 32, he's still the viable contender he claims to be or if, in the biting phrase of the commentator Mary Carillo, he's simply "pathologically optimistic."

MURRAY

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When Andy Murray reached the 2012 US Open final he'd already been to four Slam finals, losing them all in a manner that left him looking curiously bewildered and ineffectual. Each defeat added to the crushing burden of pressure that accrued to him as the only highly ranked player in Great Britain, the tennis-fixated nation where the sport began and where no man had won a Grand Slam since 1936 when the much-vaunted Fred Perry took home the last of his three Wimbledon trophies. Murray's multiple defeats gave rise to mass indignation in the British press, expressed in countless articles bearing cloying headlines like one that read, "Will Andy Murray ever give the nation the victory it craves?"

For half a dozen years that question had been the elephant in any room that happened to contain reporters and Andy Murray. He had dealt with it gracefully, wisely concealing his true feelings about it until his two Slam titles abated that cumbersome craving, at least temporarily, and he became willing, for the first time, to tell reporters how that question made him feel, "Every day you get asked, ‘When are you going to win Wimbledon?'," he recalled. "'Why have you not won a Grand Slam?' And every question makes you doubt yourself more ... It does make you feel a bit like a loser."

You can see why, when Murray won the US Open, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final, no one was more relieved than he was, with the arguable exceptions of his girlfriend and his mother. He beat Djokovic again in 2013, when he finally triumphed at Wimbledon, a victory so longed for he could not believe he'd actually attained it. Even after receiving congratulations from the queen and visiting with the prime minister, he would wake in the middle of the night and, uncertain he'd prevailed, put on a video of the last desperate points he'd played. "I had to keep watching the end of the match," he told an ESPN reporter, "to make sure it was real."

As defending champion at the 2013 Open, Murray faced a new sort of pressure; having spent the first part of his tennis life proving he has what it takes, he's fated to spend the rest of it trying to top his own achievements.

DJOKOVIC

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When Djokovic won the US Open in 2011 it was his third major win in a year in which he would ultimately go 70-6 and compile one of the more impressive seasons in tennis history. "Djokovic is playing superior to the rest," said Nadal's coach, his uncle Toni, "I hope it does not last forever."

And of course it didn't. Tennis is a game of inches, and suddenly, possibly for no particular reason other than that Djokovic is human, balls that once landed smack on the lines were sailing just beyond them. At the start of the 2013 Open he hadn't won a title since April when he defeated Nadal in Monte Carlo on clay, a telling prelude, or so he assumed, to achieving his goal for the year, which - as he declared repeatedly - was to win the French Open, the only Grand Slam title he lacked. A win at the French would add his name to the list of seven players  - Nadal and Federer among them - who'd won the Career Grand Slam, which results from having the skill and versatility to win at least once at all four Slams: the Australian Open and the US Open, which are played on hard courts, Wimbledon, which is played on grass, and the French Open, played on clay.

But at the French, he lost to Nadal in a ferociously contested five-set semifinal, and then went down in the Wimbledon final to Murray with minimal opposition. For most players, making the finals at successive Grand Slams would constitute a banner season, but for Djokovic, losing at those finals was a harsh disappointment made worse by commentators who pose questions he'd rather not answer. "What have you been working on?" one of them asked, "Some of your shots weren't working as well as they once were..."

Djokovic had been ranked No. 1 for the better part of two years. But he needed to win the Open or he'd likely lose that ranking to his nemesis Nadal - the person he'd least like to attain it. The Open was his last opportunity to turn around an unexpectedly demoralizing year in which he's learned that being successful doesn't feel all that great when you used to be dominant.

NADAL

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The big story of the summer was the unanticipated resurgence of Rafael Nadal, clay court master, longtime kryptonite to Roger Federer and arguably the most tenacious competitor in any sport, one whose game was described by Andre Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert as "an education in pain." Nadal's seven months of rehabilitation from knee tendinitis and a torn patella tendon made for an anxious and difficult time during which he tried not to dwell on the possibility that he might never again play at a high level. He returned to the game in February 2013, looking and feeling apprehensive even as he reached the final in the first tournament he entered. But he lost to Horacio Zeballos, an Argentine journeyman ranked No. 73 who, early in the day, had tweeted that he was about to play a match against "God" and, by sundown, had pulled off an upset that shocked everyone but Nadal.

But from then on, Nadal would furnish a different sort of shock as he made the finals of all but one of the next nine tournaments he played, winning seven and establishing a record number of wins for a male player at a single Grand Slam with his eighth victory at the French Open a few days after his 27th birthday.

But most surprising was his undefeated record at the three hard-court Masters events he played, including back-to-back wins at the tournaments immediately preceding the Open, a feat regarded as nearly impossible and accomplished only by three other players: Pat Rafter, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.

As the Open began, Nadal had a winning record against every other seeded player and, with one exception, against every player in the draw he'd played more than once. He was deemed the man to beat, and even Djokovic was saying Nadal had been the best player of the year. What remained to be determined was whether he had peaked too soon, or whether his astonishing roster of wins was the harbinger of what would be a victory all the more momentous for being so unlikely.

WEEK ONE

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A Grand Slam is effectively two tournaments neatly divided into week one and week two. The first week begins with 128 men; by the start of the second week, 112 are gone and 16 remain.

watching seeded players progress through the draw can be equivalent to observing an armored tank move through a forest of saplings.

In the early rounds, watching seeded players progress through the draw can be equivalent to observing an armored tank move through a forest of saplings, cutting them down one by one in maneuvers generally devoid of drama or resistance.  There are exceptions, of course, as there were at the most recent major, Wimbledon, where Steve Darcis from Belgium unceremoniously ousted Nadal in the first round, while Federer lost in the second round to Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine. These players, ranked, respectively No.'s 135 and 116, and not exactly household names outside their respective countries, had played the matches of their lives, surprising their storied opponents nearly as much as they surprised themselves.

Still, more often than not, the top guys subdue lower ranked opponents with an amalgam of physical skill and mental toughness that manifest in measurable entities like serving percentages, and ratios of winners to errors. But their greatest advantage derives from the amorphous composite of achievement and legend known as the "aura," which results in a monumental intimidation factor that effectively puts most highly ranked players up a break or two before they step onto the court.

Given these unalterable imbalances, the early matches that matter most are those with the potential to eliminate two sorts of players: the few with a shot at the title or the equally few with a genuine chance of derailing them. Djokovic had what John McEnroe termed the best early round draw for any player in nearly 20 years, but, if the seedings held, he was slated for two tricky matches down the line: a quarterfinal with Juan Martin del Potro, the Argentine who nearly beat him in the semifinal at Wimbledon; and a semifinal encounter with Andy Murray, who'd defeated him at last year's Open and for the recent Wimbledon title.

Nadal also had two possible pitfalls in the offing: a fourth round match against the American John Isner and a feverishly anticipated quarterfinal that would be the 32nd chapter in his illustrious rivalry with Roger Federer whom he had played - and defeated - at every Grand Slam except the US Open.

ROUND TWO

Juan Martin del Potro, the only man at the Open, aside from the Big Four, with a serious chance to win the title, is a sweet-natured, somewhat phlegmatic fellow who, at 6'6 has tremendous reach, a mighty serve and a hard, flat, stinging forehand. When he won the Open at the age of 20 back in 2009, he became the only player other than Nadal to beat Federer in a Grand Slam final, a coup that, going into the match, seemed infeasible to pretty much everyone, including del Potro. Theirs was a battle between men of wildly differing natures, as could be deduced from a glance at each man's player's box: Federer's boasted, among others,  Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale and Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue who had assumed the role of Federer's personal style adviser, while del Potro's box contained his coach, his physical trainer, a friend and a dozen empty seats.

The victory established del Potro as No. 5 in the world and, in the minds of many, as the player most likely to be the next No. 1.  But a disastrous wrist injury soon took him out of the game. There was surgery, followed by an impossibly slow healing process. He returned a year later, visibly uncertain and ranked No. 257.

Now, he had worked his way back to No. 6 in the world, and was about to play his childhood idol, the 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, one of the most spirited competitors in the sport's history, whose signature exhortation - a  raspy, shouted "Come on!" - has been adopted by countless players. But in recent years, Hewitt seemed to have had more surgeries than wins and when he looked at his draw and saw del Potro was his second round opponent he didn't bother looking any further.

Hewitt was the youngest player ever to attain the No. 1 ranking, which he did in 2001, at the age of 20. He held it for 80 weeks, the 10th most all time, but his fortunes had long since plummeted. This was evidenced several years ago, after he lost a late night match at what is now the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. As all losers must, he came to the press room to answer questions. Seated behind a table and a microphone he waited for the usual gaggle of reporters though it soon became clear the gaggle would be comprised only of me and a PR guy for the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals). We each asked a question or two, and Hewitt answered, and we all tried to act as if the situation was perfectly normal when, in fact, it was perfectly demeaning. Then Hewitt left thinking god knows what, and you could only hope that his staunchly matter-of-fact nature protected him from potentially disturbing ruminations on the fleetingness of fame and power.

Coming onto the court to face del Potro, Hewitt had long since lost whatever he had to lose, but this only made him more committed and happier than ever to be playing in the world's biggest arena, the 23,000 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium. "I was hankering to get out on this court again," he would later tell reporters, "and put on a show."

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Which he did, and when he defeated a sluggish del Potro the only person happier than he was would have been Djokovic, for whom Hewitt had performed the helpful service of dispensing with a player presumed to pose a major impediment to his ambitions.

Hewitt would go out of the Open in the Round of 16, losing to 31-year-old Russian Mikhail Youzhny, a former No. 8 with a bulldog's face who was actually Dr. Youzhny, having received a Ph.D. in philosophy after authoring a thesis about tennis players and how to beat them. Despite this apparent seriousness of purpose, Youzhny was best-known for having become a YouTube sensation when he responded to losing a match by hitting his head with his racquet until he bled, proving in the process that, generally speaking, fame is more easily acquired by being weird than by playing tennis.

The Hewitt/Youzhny match was a war between two wily veterans, playing smart, old-school tennis, thinking ahead a shot or two, placing serves, making the other guy uncomfortable. Hewitt was up 5-2 in the fifth set, but he tightened up when serving for the match, and Youzhny broke him and went on to win. Hewitt left the court knowing he may never have another chance to go deep in a major again.

ROUND THREE

It's no secret that American tennis has ceased to be the vibrant, pride-inducing spectacle it was from 1920 to 2003.

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It's no secret that American tennis has ceased to be the vibrant, pride-inducing spectacle it was from 1920 to 2003 when men like Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras led the roster of iconic, tough-minded players. For 50 of those 83 years Americans loomed over the sport and either held or shared the No. 1 ranking.

This summer, when John Isner's ranking dipped below No. 20 for a week or two, it meant there was no American male in the top 20 for the first time since 1973. Even when Isner reclaimed a top 20 berth, only one other American - the chronically uninspiring Sam Querrey - was ranked above No. 85, marking an epic and embarrassing tumble from grace for a country that, in 1979, had claimed seven of the top 10 players, among them the legendary Connors, McEnroe and Ashe.

For the last several years, each time the Open rolls around, a storyline trumpeted in the ever-hopeful American press is whether this will be the Major at which champion-deprived fans will witness the overdue breakthrough of Isner, an amiable, somewhat unwieldy, North Carolinian who, at 6'10, plays what is called Big Man Tennis, a term implying there is an entity called Little Man Tennis, which, of course, there isn't.

Isner is known primarily for having won the longest match in tennis history, a sweaty extravaganza lasting 11 hours and five minutes played over three days and occasioned equally by a massive serve (Isner's strength) and a pitiably weak service return (his glaring weakness).

The hype preceding Isner at the Open is ramped up by the fact that he always plays well in the run-up tournaments, which, with one exception, are contested in the U.S. where he can feed off the crowd support he needs and craves.

No crowd is more fervid or demonstrative than the US Open crowd. This is especially true at the night sessions, where the feistiness for which New Yorkers pride themselves grows exponentially with the prodigious intake of beer, wine, champagne and the Honey Deuce, a concoction of Grey Goose vodka, lemonade and raspberry liqueur, topped off with three honeydew melon balls on a stick (to represent three tennis balls) and is to the Open what mint juleps are to the Kentucky Derby.

In such matches, a crowd sufficiently tanked or engaged or put off or enthused transmutes into a third entity endowed with a unique capacity to embolden or aggravate the two hyped up, edgy guys slugging it out in their presence.  Knowing how to utilize the crowd is a gift in itself. Jimmy Connors, who had that gift and took pains to hone it, refers to crowds as "my partner."  Their support, he once said, is like having "somebody out there with me, helping me along the way."

The crowd had been an unexpectedly consequential factor in Isner's second round match against the determinedly flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils, who insists he would rather entertain the crowd than win. More often than not, that is precisely how things pan out, and, even if it satisfies Monfils, it's dispiriting to see such a gifted athlete mugging and chatting to the crowd and hurling racquets into the air and reflexively opting for being loved over being admired.

Monfils captivated the night crowd in Louis Armstrong Stadium almost from the first ball. As they cheered him they took on the distinction of being the first crowd at the US Open to favor a non-American over an American player though, considering the unparalleled appeal of players like Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal, it seems fair to ask what took them so long.

Isner was justifiably rattled, but managed to hold it together and win the match in four tight sets, though later, at his presser, he made no bones about the fact that the crowd response had been "disappointing."

In Round 3, he played Philipp Kohlschreiber, a German with few weaknesses in his game who stands a full foot shorter than Isner.  The match threatened to be a case of déjà vu all over again since last year, in the same third round, it was Kohlschreiber who had taken Isner out of the Open. Isner, by his own account, was seeking "revenge," and he must known there was no way the crowd would abandon him this time out, since Kohlschreiber is a player with a slightly sour mien and the charisma of a dinner napkin. Indeed, after Kohlschreiber won the first set, the tennis writer Steve Tignor tweeted: Crowd is shockingly anti-German so far.

Isner was down two sets to one when, in the fourth set, he broke Kohlschreiber's serve to go up 6-5. Before stepping up to serve for the set, he engaged in some uncharacteristic cheerleading, wagging his forefinger at the crowd, pumping his arms to rile them up, cupping a hand over one ear to bring forth still louder chants of USA! USA! Even in the moment, it seemed like too much celebration too soon, and, in fact, Isner was broken and went on to lose the ensuing tiebreak and the match. Afterwards, he would say of his efforts to stir the crowd what any casual observer could have told him. "I used too much energy, and I shouldn't have done that. It was stupid on my part."

With Isner out, the task of upholding the woefully frayed banner of American male singles tennis was left to the previously unheralded and largely unknown Tim Smyczek, a 25-year-old from Milwaukee. But Smyczek lost his next match to Marcel Granollers, a Spanish player whose success has come almost exclusively in doubles.

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***

Federer's fourth round match was scheduled for the evening, a bonus for a player who was 22-1 in night matches at the Open.

In an interview two nights earlier, Federer had spoken about his opponent, the 22nd ranked Spaniard Tommy Robredo, who had missed most of the previous year because of injury. He's a good player, Federer allowed, adding he'd beaten Robredo each of the 10 times they've played. Clearly, he was thinking ahead to that prospective quarterfinal with Nadal. Still, his dismissive remarks about Robredo, once ranked as high as No. 7, seemed a bit cavalier, especially in retrospect when Federer had played poorly from the opening game, sailing a backhand long, getting passed twice when coming to the net, and bungling two forehands to get broken.  Later, he would say he had "self-destructed" but it was also true that Robredo had played bold, inspired tennis as he finished him off in straight sets.

Federer was far from the only person to assume he'd be meeting Nadal in the quarters, though the odds on this much desired clash of the titans might have seemed rather low to anyone who had considered Federer's slow but steadily devolving results at the Open. He won it five times from 2004 to 2008, lost in the finals in ‘09 and lost in the semis in 2010 and 2011 both times to Djokovic and, in both cases, bizarrely, after holding match points. One year ago he lost in the quarters, marking a downfall that had about it the absolute precision that used to characterize his forehand.

he seemed like a condemned prisoner heading off to serve a life sentence.

After losing the match, Federer looked desolate as he trudged the several hundred yards that separate the Louis Armstrong Stadium from the locker room. Surrounded by security men, he seemed like a condemned prisoner heading off to serve a life sentence. And in a sense he was, since, from here on, he might well be consigned to live as one of those perpetually wistful individuals who populate the pricier boxes at the Open - those fading actors and athletes and politicians whose seasons of achievement are behind them.

Watching him, you had to wonder if he sometimes wished he'd retired after winning his 17th major at Wimbledon in 2012, the victory that restored his No. 1 ranking and enabled him to go on to clock a record 302 weeks in that exalted position. There is a certain nobility in going out on such a high, but Federer had squandered that option and, judging from the stricken expression on his face, he must have known it.

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QUARTERFINALS

A notable aspect of the quarterfinals was that three of the eight men contesting them  -  Robredo, Youzhny and world No. 4 David Ferrer  - had already celebrated their 30th birthday. Another anomaly was that four of the eight had a one-handed backhand, a throwback to an earlier time that, in this era of the power game, was widely, if erroneously, assumed to have the usefulness of a dead battery.

It took Djokovic four sets to dispense with Youzhny, but it was difficult to gauge precisely what that said about the state of his game. In the early rounds, observers bent on talking up his chances had heaped praise on him for beating players who were middling at best and, had any of them defeated him, would have pulled off one of the most stunning upsets ever. Djokovic had coasted to the semis, but there was no way to know for sure if this was because he was now playing dominating tennis, or if he simply had the good fortune to face three opponents in a row - Youzhny included - who came to him thoroughly depleted after five-set standoffs in the previous round.

Nadal's opponent in the quarters was his countryman Robredo, whose response to his decisive, unanticipated victory over Federer was expressed in words not often heard from tennis players: "I'm delighted," he had said.  Robredo had been on the tour for 15 years, and was often overlooked even when he played superior tennis and, possibly for that reason, he had grown increasingly aloof and touchy. Some years ago, when I was about to interview him, several reporters warned me to not to ask him anything about Nadal who, by then, at the age of 23, was both the sun and the cloud hanging over every other Spanish player and emphatically not a favorite subject of Tommy Robredo. But in the last year, when he and Nadal were both coming back from extended injury, they had spent hours practicing together and had bonded over shared and difficult situations.

But Nadal, who is sentimental enough to have seen "Phantom of the Opera" seven times, does not waste as much as a minute on the court indulging his more tender feelings. He took Robredo out in a merciless thrashing that was pretty operatic in itself, during which he hit his 97th forehand winner of the tournament while his suddenly subdued countryman won only four games in three sets.

The most consequential quarterfinal was played by the defending champion, world No. 2 Andy Murray, and Stanislas Wawrinka, the No. 2 Swiss player, and No. 9 in the world, who had pulled off an emphatic upset of Murray at the 2010 Open.

Wawrinka had spent his career as "that other Swiss player." He never seemed to mind, though his feelings about his overall position in the game became apparent three years ago when he determined he had just five more years to make an impact on tennis and must rid himself of all distractions, two of which turned out to be his wife of less than two years and their baby daughter.

"Stan told me he had new priorities," his wife told the press. "He packed his bags and moved into a hotel.  There would have been another solution, if he had spoken to me about it,"

Ultimately, this stratagem failed, domestic bliss was restored and Wawrinka settled on a more effective method for making his mark, namely, to hire a new coach, Magnus Norman, a former player from Sweden who runs the assertively titled Good to Great Tennis Academy.

Murray also had made a coaching change that proved beneficial when he began working nearly two years ago with the insistently taciturn Ivan Lendl who, like Murray, had lost four Grand Slam finals before winning one and, unlike Murray, had gone on to win seven more. Under Lendl's tutelage, Murray reached the finals of the last four Slams he played, and defeated Djokovic to secure his two Slam titles.

With del Potro gone, he was regarded as the only player with enough game to derail Djokovic. Consequently, many of those cheering for him were Nadal fans hoping, should their man reached the final, that his opponent would be Murray rather than Djokovic, given that Murray posed a lesser threat and is much nicer.

Murray had never before had the opportunity to defend a Grand Slam title. Were he to win the Open again, he had a shot, for the first time, at the No. 1 ranking. But he looked dull and flat in the early rounds and clearly hampered by a hangover from his Wimbledon victory, which had called on every bit of his mind and body and spirit. ESPN had chosen him as the subject of one their overwrought TV essays all of which have the same evident subtext  - who says we aren't sensitive? - is a question no one was asking. The Murray piece began with a tremulous "What happens to the dreamer when the dream comes true?"  It's hardly a mystery. What happens is this: he gets tired.

Wawrinka was nervous at the start of the match, but he was patient and by the end of the first set he was whacking winners into the corners while Murray was reduced to smashing his racket in frustration. By the end of the second set Murray was screaming. By the end of the third set Murray had been freed to board the earliest possible flight to Heathrow Airport, his second speedy exit of the day, and to return, accompanied by his longtime girlfriend, to their house and dog in Surrey. The next morning, a headline in the Mail Online typified the contempt that had seeped back into Murray-related stories:  "Gloomy Andy beats hasty retreat back to London after title defense in Big Apple turns rotten."

Apparently memory is in short supply in Murray's homeland, where, mere weeks ago, he was a hero and speculation abounded as to when he would be knighted.

SEMIFINALS

WAWRINKA v.  DJOKOVIC

Wawrinka had come close to beating Djokovic at the 2013 Australian Open, the first Slam of the year, where he'd played at the heightened level he'd often seemed capable of, but had never attained. When he lost in a grinding brawl that ended 12-10 in the fifth set, he retreated to his hotel room and refused to emerge for three days.

But his beat down of Andy Murray had boosted his confidence. He strode onto the court seeming to believe he could win and broke a discombobulated Djokovic three times to seize the first set. Theirs was to be a strange match, lasting four hours and five minutes, and marked by some exhilarating patches of play as both players aimed for and defended the corners. But there was also a code violation for Djokovic after he received coaching from the stands and a ball abuse warning for Wawrinka, who was leading two sets to one in the fourth set when he took a medical timeout for a strained muscle that would impede his previously flowing movement. Once injured, he was fated to lose, though in the fifth set he battled valiantly, saving five break points to win an epic 21-minute, 30-point game, but Djokovic was undeterred and went on to win the match and a berth in the final.

Later, both men would say, rightly, that Wawrinka had been the better player and as he left the court, the crowd stood and gave him an ovation. He turned back to wave and take in the scene, and it was a lovely moment for a player who had yet to garner a fair share of praise.

"Even if I lost," he said, "I was still happy to hear all the cheering. It's something quite amazing for me."

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GASQUET v. NADAL

Nadal's semifinal opponent was the Frenchman Richard Gasquet, whose style of play has historically been more aesthetic than effective. Yet lately, he's been challenging the most damning knock on him: that, despite his prodigious gifts, he's terminally hindered by a deficit of guts and heart. But he's been holding the No. 9 ranking, and, for the first time since 2007 he'd made the semis of a Grand Slam, having defeated two tough players along the way, each in the fifth set where he's customarily folded.

Gasquet became infamous in 2009 when he tested positive for a miniscule amount of cocaine. He was suspended but reinstated after convincing an anti-doping tribunal that the cocaine found on him had come from a girl he'd French-kissed in a Miami club where she was doing some lines. To some, this explanation was titillating; for most it was improbable. But Nadal had known and liked Gasquet since they were little kids and, during the suspension, he stood by him, always insisting Gasquet was innocent, "Rafa supported me more than anyone," Gasquet said later. "I'll never forget what he's done for me."

Another thing Gasquet has not forgotten was his sole win over Nadal, which came when they were both 13. Asked by a reporter about that match of 14 years ago, Nadal, who has absolute recall for the most arcane details of plays and scores, said yes, of course he remembered it. "It was 6-4," he said, "in the third."

Nadal beat Gasquet in straight sets, but his play was more conservative and had less flair than at any previous point in the tournament. Going into the final, he was 21-0 for the season on hard courts, and the betting favored him over Djokovic by a slight margin. Still, there was reason to wonder if he'd been abruptly deserted by the magic that had settled on him like a cloak throughout the summer.

FINAL: DJOKOVIC v NADAL

In a sense the 2013 US Open final began at the end of the 2012 Australian Open, where Nadal and Djokovic locked horns while contesting their most epic Slam final. Djokovic won it in a 5 hour, 53 minute feral encounter that was the longest grand Slam Final ever played and a clash so comprehensive and grueling that during the trophy presentation they could no longer stand and had to be supplied with chairs and bottles of water.

After that loss, the men in Nadal's camp worried about his state of mind. The match had been his seventh straight loss to Djokovic in finals since the start of 2011, and his third straight loss to him in Slam finals. Anyone who had watched Nadal over the years could see that this unprecedented string of defeats to a single player had robbed him of a measure of his leonine fight and belief. In May 2011, after Djokovic had done what no one had ever done by beating him in successive matches on clay, Nadal had gone into the French Open, where he was the five-time champion, shaken and downcast and saying tersely that he wasn't "obligated" to win the tournament, though in fact he did win it, two weeks later.

But after the loss in Melbourne, Nadal was unexpectedly upbeat. The match, he said, had shown him how to beat Djokovic, and while that seemed unduly hopeful at the time, since then he'd gone 5-1 against him, 4-1 in finals, and 1-0 in Slams.  Perhaps the main understanding he'd gained was that while he had forced his other opponents to make adjustments to his type of play, Djokovic had developed into the one player who required Nadal not simply to do things better - as he always sought to do - but to adjust, and do things differently, an intriguing challenge for a player who loved the day-in, day-out process of tennis and thrived on finding answers to adversity.

Their rivalry was unlike that of Nadal and Federer, which is underpinned by a comradeship and civility.

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Their rivalry was unlike that of Nadal and Federer, which is underpinned, once a given match ends, by a comradeship and civility most poignantly expressed when Nadal put a comforting arm around the weeping Federer after defeating him in 2009 at the Australian Open. But that genuine warmth did not factor into his relationship with Djokovic, who had always seemed to resent and envy Nadal's success, his charisma, his popularity. As for Nadal, as much as he had detested getting beaten seven times running, what he may have liked even less was Djokovic's behavior in victory: the celebratory chest beating, banshee screams and strutting shirtless around the court while Nadal sat nearby slumped and disconsolate.

In 2007, when Djokovic began to be a force in tennis, he was hailed as the breath of fresh air the sport needed and his derisive on-court imitations of other players - Nadal in particular - were cited as evidence of a sparkling personality. "If you can call that personality," Pete Sampras said.

Djokovic became for many a troubling figure, known to have made use of the CVAC Pod, (Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Training) a performance-enhancing pressure chamber deemed by the World Anti-Doping Association to be "not in the spirit of sport." This past year, at Wimbledon, he wore specially made kicks embellished with "pimples" on their sides, a no-slip aid specifically banned in the tournament's rules and, during a match in Madrid earlier in the year, even his fans were jolted when he castigated the crowd in his native Serbian after they had the temerity to cheer for his opponent. The words he shouted "Sada cete da mi lizete kurac, mamu vam jebem, sacete kurac da mi lizete," translate into "Now you'll lick my c***, I'll fuck your mothers, you're gonna lick my c*** now" a charming recitation that explains why, when Djokovic is playing, it sometimes seems silly to refer to tennis as "the gentleman's sport."

In August, at the Montreal Masters he had celebrated his wins by donning an Afro wig and dancing on court to Daft Punk's Get Lucky, demonstrating yet again that he is as eager for approval as he is for the spotlight, which is to say, he's as insecure as he is narcissistic. Weeks later, at the Open, he unveiled a newly sober persona that had materialized so suddenly it seemed less a change of heart than a change of plan.

For Nadal, who is reticent and often uneasy in his on-court interviews, the spotlight was something to be dealt with, not something he craved. Nor was he preoccupied with image; he was who he was, and it didn't matter to him if people laughed when he engaged in his pre-match rituals like arranging two water bottles just so in front of his chair. Unlike other players who go off to distant tennis academies in their early teens, Nadal had remained at home with his family, where he was always dearly loved but never worshipped as Djokovic seems to have been in his own family and, apparently, still is if we are to judge from Papa Djokovic's recent remark that his son is "a global miracle."

Nadal's athletic gifts had been apparent from an early age but he was told from childhood that just because he can hit a ball over a net he should never think he was better than anyone else. This year, asked when he realized he was special he had said he really didn't believe he was special, and what struck the interviewer was that he meant it.

This season Nadal had gone 24-1 against top 10 players, but that one loss was to Djokovic, and though he led him 21-15 overall, he went into the final 6-11 against him on hard courts. They had played two US Open finals before; Nadal won the first in 2010; Djokovic beat him the following year. This match was to be the zero sum encounter that would break that tie and determine which man will have won two majors this year. When the match ended, one of them would likely be the year-end No. 1 and would have bested the only player who could challenge him consistently.

THE MATCH

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Djokovic came out strong in the first set but soon seemed mired in an inexplicable absence of urgency while Nadal's play, rife with power and guile, was as explosive as it was exacting. Nadal's racquet charged through the air with the whip and sting of a sword. He was like a tiger waiting for the right moment to pounce, and when it came he took small, light steps to meet the ball, then planted his feet and, as he drew back his racquet, you could feel the winner coming even before he powered the ball into a corner for the break that would give him the first set in forty-two minutes.

But he went to his chair convinced he could not conceivably maintain this initial, phenomenal level, and as the second set unfolded, that assumption proved to be prophecy.

Nadal was serving at 2-3 when Djokovic hit a drop shot to set up break point. The ensuing 54-stroke rally was a chess game, a boxing match, a duel which sent them dashing and scrambling side to side, and by the time Nadal ended it with a backhand whacked into the net, he had run 472 feet and Djokovic had run 424 feet on that single point.

Wild cheers erupted, though Nadal did not seem to hear them as he readied himself to receive serve. But Djokovic raised his arms triumphantly above his head and walked toward the stands, his eyes searching the crowd, as if seeking praise for a victory not yet won. Nadal broke back in the next game; then Djokovic broke him again, taking the set 6-3, leveling the match, and cementing the shift in momentum.

It was one set all, but Djokovic was ascendant and unhesitating as he broke Nadal's serve at love in the first game of the third set, winning his third game in a row with mounting certitude and lethal forehands. Serving at 0-2, Nadal faced another break point but he hunkered down, stony-faced, refusing to countenance defeat, propelled by his thirst for battle and his monumental force of will. Now they were embroiled in a deadly contest, a joust of savage grandeur in which points were visceral and volcanic and every shot was accompanied by a primal grunt and had the pitiless aspect of a punch to the gut. It was tennis as scorched earth policy, a quest for dominance whose ultimate point was not merely to defeat the other but to break him, destroy him, wipe him out.

Had Djokovic gotten that second break, he would have been cruising toward the propitious advantage of two sets to one. But he faltered at the end of a lengthy rally, sending a shot long and two games later, when Nadal broke him for 3 games all, he was soon yelling at his camp, looking around, flustered and negative, knowing he'd had a chance to place his foot firmly on Nadal's throat and blown it with a single, wayward backhand.

At 4-all, Nadal was down 0-40, and Djokovic had three break points. Had he converted one of them, he would have served for the third set, but Nadal saved them all, one with a shot into the corner so risky and bold it was almost impertinent, another by firing his first and only ace of the match. The next game was steeped in desperate, scorching intensity, and when Nadal broke Djokovic's serve and took a set he should never have won, he knelt at the baseline, eyes fixed on the court, pumping his left fist again and again. Behind him, in his player's box, his sister Maribel and his girlfriend Xisca rose to their feet, eyes wide, as if unable to believe the razor's edge escapes they had witnessed. Xisca clasped a hand over her mouth; Maribel held a hand to her forehead. Then, radiant and relieved and ecstatic, they looked over at Nadal and shouted Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!

In the fourth set, Nadal bore down with fierce, unapologetic force that attested to his ravenous appetite for the game, the challenge, the competition. As the victory grew nearer, Djokovic's shoulders slumped and his eyes dulled, and he seemed to have concluded that Nadal, the man he had beaten so vociferously in the past, had roused himself and gone on to attain an unheard of level that was insurmountable.

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The crowd also knew they were witnessing something remarkable, something far more than mere athleticism or brute strength or stamina. One year ago, at the close of the 2012 Open, Rafael Nadal was sitting on his couch, texting congratulations to the winner. In defiance of all logic and likelihood he had gone from there to where he was as the 2013 final concluded. Having won his 13th Grand Slam, he collapsed onto the court, and lay there sobbing as the crowd stood in praise of a man who had played fearless, slashing tennis and, before their eyes, secured his place at the uttermost pinnacle of his sport alongside the only other men who had earned the right to be there: Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Rod Laver.

Watching Nadal, some thought they were witnessing a dream coming true. They weren't. He had never presumed to dream anything like this.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Nicole Franz | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

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Elizabeth Kaye is an award-winning journalist and author who has been a contributing editor to Esquire, John Kennedy's George magazine, and Rolling Stone. She has written extensively about tennis and basketball; her profile of Phil Jackson appears in The Best American Sports Writing 2003.

She has written five books, among them Ain't No Tomorrow: Kobe, Shaq and the Making of a Laker's Dynasty and two E-Books: Sleeping with Famous Men and the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss and Surviving the Titanic.

Find her on Twitter at @elizkaye.

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