September 13, 2010: The day Rafael Nadal completed the career Grand Slam

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Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back to the biggest moments in tennis history. On September 13, 2010, Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in the US Open final to complete the career Grand Slam.

What happened exactly on that day

On this day, September 13, 2010, Rafael Nadal completed the career Grand Slam at the age of 24 by defeating Novak Djokovic in the US Open final (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2). He was the youngest player in the Open Era to achieve that feat, and he was only the third player — after Andre Agassi and Roger Federer — to triumph in four Grand Slams on four different surfaces. That day, not only did he comfort his world No 1 spot with a third major crown in 2010, but he also became one of the greatest players of all time.

The guys involved

In September 2010, Nadal was only 24 — but his achievements had already secured him a chapter in tennis history books. His clay-court records were outstanding. Almost unbeatable on his favourite surface, he had won the French Open at his first attempt, in 2005 (defeating Mariano Puerta in the final, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5), and since then he had triumphed at Roland-Garros four times, in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010, holding a 38-1 record in Paris. Apart from Robin Soderling, who beat him in the 2009 fourth round (6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6), no one had managed to win more than one set against Nadal at Roland-Garros. He held a record of 81 consecutive matches won on red dirt, on which he had already won 29 tournaments. Besides, after his second Grand Slam triumph he improved his game, making it more aggressive to make it more effective on fast surfaces. Defeated by Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2006 and 2007, he eventually claimed the title at the All-England Club in 2008, edging his Swiss rival in one of the greatest matches in tennis history (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7). He became world No 1 for the first time, interrupting Federer’s 237-week reign. In 2009, Nadal claimed a first Grand Slam title on hard courts at the Australian Open — where he survived a five-hour semi-final against Fernando Verdasco (6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4) before battling five sets to beat Federer in the final (7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2). Injuries troubled him in the following 12 months, but he came back stronger than ever at the spring of 2010, taking his revenge against Soderling in the Roland-Garros final (6-4, 6-2, 6-4) before claiming a second Wimbledon title by beating Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the final (6-3, 7-5, 6-4). Capable of winning on any surface, he was now chasing the only Grand Slam title missing to his list of achievements : the US Open, where he had still never reached the final.

Novak Djokovic was born in 1987. He entered the top 100 in 2005, finishing the year as world No 83. In 2006, he made himself famous by reaching the quarterfinals at Roland-Garros while ranked only No 63. His run included a defeat of world No 9 Fernando Gonzalez in the second round. Djokovic’s breakthrough year was 2007, when he reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon (stopped each time by Nadal) before making his way to the US Open final in which he was defeated by Federer (7-6 7-6 6-4). At the start of 2008, he triumphed for the first time in a major tournament, edging Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open (4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6). Djokovic then remained world No 3 in the next two years, often reaching the last rounds of major events where Federer and Nadal kept preventing from adding more major crowns to his list of achievements; the Spaniard eliminated him in the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 2008 (6-4, 6-2, 7-6), and the Swiss stopped him twice in the semi-final at Flushing Meadows in 2008 and 2009. In September 2010, Djokovic had already claimed 17 titles on the tour, including one Grand Slam tournament, the 2008 Masters Cup (defeating Nikolay Davydenko in the final, 6-1, 7-5), and five Masters 1000 events.

The place

The US Open (known as the US Nationals before 1968 and the start of the Open Era), was established in 1881, and — although it is the only Grand Slam to have been played every single year without an interruption since its beginning — it moved several times locations throughout the 20th century. First held in August 1881 on grass courts at the Newport Casino on Rhode Island, the tournament moved to New York in 1915, where it was held at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills until 1977 (with the exception of years 1921-1923, when the event was moved to Philadelphia). At Forest Hills, the Center Court built in 1924 could host 14,000 spectators.

In 1978 the US Open left the West Side Tennis Club, which was now too small for such an important event, for the USTA National Tennis Center — located in Flushing, New York. The Tennis Center was one of the biggest tennis complexes in the world; its center court was the Louis Armstrong Stadium, which had a capacity of 14,000 spectators. 

In 1997, a new center court, the Arthur Ashe Stadium, was inaugurated. With 23,000 seats, it was the biggest tennis arena in the world.

The facts

The two players facing each other in the 2010 US Open final were both on a mission. World No 1 Nadal was determined to triumph at Flushing Meadows to achieve a career Grand Slam, at the age of 24. Djokovic, world No 3 and 23 years old, had not won a second Grand Slam tournament since his success at the 2008 Australian Open and was desperate to confirm his potential and aim for world No 1.

The US Open was Nadal least favourite major tournament at the time. He had suffered several early losses there, and although he had reached the final four twice,  Juan Martin Del Potro had brutally destroyed him in the semi-final 2009 (6-2, 6-2, 6-2). However, he appeared to be stronger than ever in 2010 after having triumphed at both Roland-Garros and Wimbledon. His serve was now much faster, which made him less vulnerable on Flushing Meadows hard courts. In fact, he made his way to the final without dropping a single set.

Djokovic was not as confident. After a disappointing 2009 season, he had been far away from reaching his goals in 2010. Claiming only one title, his best result was a semi-final reached at Wimbledon, but lost to Berdych (6-3, 7-6, 6-3). After he had been pushed to play five sets in the US Open first round by countryman Victor Troicki (6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3), he didn’t face much trouble before meeting with Roger Federer in the semi-final. He edged the Swiss after an epic battle, in which he saved two match points (5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5).

The Serbian was determined to give his best to challenge Nadal, and he came up with an aggressive game plan, but the Spaniard held on, thanks to his amazing court coverage. The two players engaged in breathtaking baseline rallies, but Nadal had more opportunities to break his opponent’s serve. This proved to be the key to the final; while the lefty had undoubtedly improved his serve in recent months, Djokovic was struggling with technical issues since 2009 — which often put him at risk.

In the end, Nadal prevailed in four sets (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2) after three hours and 43 minutes of battle. 

“More than what I dreamt.” That’s how simply the Spaniard, who had just achieved a career Grand Slam, described the way he felt after his win. His uncle and coach, Toni, was — according to The New York Times — more talkative. “Aside from the victory, what gives me a great deal of satisfaction is to see how much he has improved on fast courts,” uncle Toni said. “It was a goal we had in mind never knowing for sure if we’d get there. But he’s returning better, serving a bit better and is closer to the baseline. The sliced backhand is much better. In the end, to see that is really satisfying.”

What next?

Although at the time it looked like no one was able to challenge Nadal’s domination, everything would change in 2011 — when Djokovic would become the new leader on the tour, claiming all Grand Slams except Roland-Garros. In the following years, the rivalry between Nadal and Djokovic would peak and become one of the greatest of all-time. By 2020, they had faced each other 55 times, with the Serb leading 29-26. Nadal holds 19 Grand Slam titles at present, and Djokovic 17.

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