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

Every day, Tennis Majors takes you back to the biggest moments in tennis history. On September 13, 2010, Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in four sets to win his first US Open title

Rafael Nadal, US Open 2010 (On This Day) Rafael Nadal, US Open 2010 (© Panoramic / Tennis Majors)

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 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in the US Open final. 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 cement his world No 1 position with a third major crown in 2010, but he also became one of the greatest players of all time.

The players: A triumphant Rafael Nadal and valiant Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal: The clay court specialist able to win on all surfaces

In September 2010, Nadal was only 24, but his achievements had already secured him a place in tennis history. The Spaniard’s clay court records were unparalleled. 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 fourth round in 2009 (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). That win led him to became world No 1 for the first time in August 2008, 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 countryman 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 from his list of achievements: the US Open, where he had still yet to reach the final.

Nadal - US Open - 2010
Nadal – US Open – 2010

•Novak Djokovic: The rising Serb with one Grand Slam under his belt

Novak Djokovic was born in 1987 in Serbia. He entered the top 100 in 2005, finishing the year as world No 83. In 2006, he made a name for himself by reaching the quarter-finals 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 both times 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 for the next two years, often reaching the closing stages of major events where Federer and Nadal kept preventing from adding more major titles to his list of tally; 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: Flushing Meadows, New York

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 had 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 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: Nadal finally wins US Open title for the full set

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 the top ranking.

The US Open was Nadal’s least favourite major tournament at the time. He had suffered several early losses in New York with his best result being a semi-final finish in 2008 and 2009. 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.

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.

Toni Nadal

Djokovic, on the other hand, 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, where he 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 Serb 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 incredible 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 left-hander 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. 

Rafael Nadal - US Open - 2010
Rafael Nadal (right) and Novak Djokovic – US Open – 2010

“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? The two men continued their rivalry at the top for a decade

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 September 2023, they had faced each other 59 times, with the Serb leading 30-29. As of this time, Nadal holds 22 Grand Slam titles while Djokovic is the all-time leader in men’s tennis with 24 Slams.

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