When the American hardcourt swing began, the landscape at the top of the game had altered considerably since the start of 2009.
Ruthlessly brilliant in taking the Australian Open in January, Nadal had been failed by severe tendinitis in his knees. His chances of defending his Wimbledon crown and retaining his place at the top were quite literally crippled. The return of Rafa was anxiously anticipated.
Roger Federer, meanwhile, had turned around his malaise to rewrite the history books and snatch back the world No. 1 ranking, which he had previously held for 237 consecutive weeks.
Enjoying a 19-match winning streak, the FedExpress looked unstoppable in the run up to his attempt to secure a sixth successive title in New York.
A year on from his tremendous performance at Flushing Meadows, British No. 1 Andy Murray sought to break his duck and get his hands on a Grand Slam title. With his feet on arguably his best surface, great expectations were laid on the Scot.
Serbian Novak Djokovic had suffered a poor Grand Slam season so far. Although he had enjoyed a stellar run in Masters 1000 events, reaching three finals, the Serbinator had yet to claim the spotlight in 2009. Perhaps the dazzling lights of the Big Apple, the site of his first major final, would spur him on to add to his 2008 Australian Open title?
JULY TO SEPTEMBER: If Juan Martin del Potro was a chef...
Rogers Cup: Montreal Masters 1000
The Canada Masters set the stage of Rafa's return to the tour. He opened successfully, if only briefly, against compatriot David Ferrer, who had to retire after only seven games. Unfortunately he hit the giant wall that is Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals. The Argentine stole the first set 7-6 before running away with the second 6-1.
Rafa had moved well and succumbed to a brilliant display from the "Delpo." The Spaniard had endured eight aces and an opponent finding 75 percent of his first serves in. He was far from his peak, but the signs were good.
Federer looked sharp in his first two matches and booked a last eight battle against Tsonga. The Frenchman had been far from spectacular in his 2009 season to date, but when he finds the magic there are few who can stop him.
The match was a superb encounter. With both men serving, moving, and varying their games magnificently, it was the epitome of a new era hardcourt match. The first set went to a tiebreak that contained a ridiculous exchange at net, showing the class of skill that the two men possess. Tsonga used some of his raw ability to snatch the lead and force Fed onto the ropes.
The Swiss responded as he so often does. Breaking Tsonga early in the second set, he smoothly swung his way to a 5-1 lead in the third set. It was impossible to have foreseen a Tsonga comeback, but that was exactly what happened.
A few crazy returns and blistering aces later, the flashy Frenchman fearlessly charged his way back into the match. Although he managed to dig his way out of 0-40 at 5-6, Federer had his streak snapped in the final set tiebreak. The Frenchman was simply outrageous at times.
Djokovic silently booked a place in the last eight to face of for a third time in a season with Andy Roddick. Nole had failed to win either of the previous two meetings, twice getting frazzled by the American's consistency and ability to stay with him from the back.
The American seemed to find a way to clinch the most important points, breaking Djokovic twice and winning 55 percent of points on his opponent's second delivery. A-Rod secured a 6-4, 7-6 win and a place in his fourth semifinal at the Masters 1000 in Canada.
His opponent was Juan Martin del Potro, fresh of his victory over Nadal. The pair had in fact met just a week ago in the final of Washington. The 6'6" Argentine defended his title by scraping through 8-6 in the final set tiebreak.
The American fell short once again, despite a promising start. Delpo began to fire at the start of the second set, slapping Roddick's second serves as if they were floating balloons. The Argentine held his nerve in the final set, saving a match point at 4-5 before grabbing the next two games. He entered his first-ever Masters 1000 final and faced world No. 3 Andy Murray, who had earlier taken care of business against streaky Tsonga.
The final began with some breathtaking tennis. Murray was content on biding his time and waiting for the right ball, while Del Potro tried to dictate from the baseline. The Tandil native played some truly remarkable tennis to grab the first set on a tie break, moving like a gazelle, which is something for a man of his height.
Murray continued to plug away, but could not break away. In the second set tiebreak it was the Scotsman who found something special and anticipated the play perfectly. After he had clinched the breaker 7-3, Delpo's well dried up and instead all he could find was a stream of unforced errors, 51 in total for the match.
The Scot added a fifth title and second Masters 1000 shield to his 2009 cabinet. He also guaranteed a shift to No. 2 in the rankings, an all-time high for the British No 1. With his movement and stamina at a peak, Murray would take some stopping on the American hardcourts.
Best match: Tsonga beat Federer 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(3) (trailed 5-1 in the third)
CINCINNATI MASTERS 1000
Defending champion Andy Murray was enjoying his customary success in the U.S. Open Series and was the favourite coming into the tournament. Federer, in the same half as the Scotsman, was his most likely challenger. The Swiss had suffered a collapse against Tsonga in Montreal, but much of that was due to some inspired play by the Frenchman.
Roddick was on a fine run and came to Cincinnati with fond memories of the two titles he had picked up in 2003 and 2005. Nadal was still on the comeback trail and considering his lack of major success in the U.S. Open Series previously, the Spaniard would hope for as many matches as possible before the final major in New York.
Finalist in Montreal, Delpo had pulled out of the tournament in Cincinnati, citing fatigue. After fading in the final in Canada against Murray, the Argentine preferred to rest before preparing to tackle the lights of New York.
Basle native Federer made smooth progress into the last four, overcoming a first set blip against David Ferrer. He, too, had claimed the trophy twice before and looked good to go all the way and win his first trophy as a father.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Roddick suffered an early loss to compatriot Sam Querrey. The taller and younger man is a promising talent with strong weapons; he lacks only the movement and perhaps craft to make the major breakthrough. A-Rod would head to New York on a slight lull.
Rafa, now down to No. 3, looked impressive in his progress to the semifinals against Djokovic, who, too, slid into the last four without too much hassle. The Spaniard has not had the upper hand on the hardcourts against Nole, losing out 4-2 outdoors. Nevertheless, the Serbian had lost all four of their encounters in 2009.
The once-rampaging bull looked like a toddler in the men's league as he watched winner after winner race past him in the first set. Nole spared no mercy in taking the set 6-1.
Despite a more consistent and aggressive Nadal in the second set, Nole prevented him from getting his teeth into the match and continued to slaughter the Mallorcan's second serve. He clinched the crucial break at 2-2 and held through to win the match.
Murray had rolled on through the draw to book a semifinal date with Swiss star Federer. Much has been made of the rivalry between the two, which Murray had a definite head-to-head edge in, leading 6-2. Federer, however, always noted that he had claimed the match that mattered the most, the U.S. Open final in 2008. There's always a bit of needle between the two.
The world No. 1 came out in a ruthless mood, striking forehands with venom into the corners. He raced through the first set 6-2, breaking Murray twice. The Scotsman ground throughout the second set, staying with Federer despite some magical drop volleys from the Swiss.
The second set climaxed in a breaker which held some horrific moments for the Scot. At 6-6, he challenged a Federer serve that had been called in, despite hitting a decent return, only to find that it was in fact on the line. Then at 8-9, the world No. 2 struck a second serve long to hand the victory to Federer.
With some of his imperial aura returning, Federer looked to get his hands on a fourth title in five tournaments. Facing Novak Djokovic in the title match, he once again came out with some unplayable tennis.
Using the dropshot to throw Nole off balance, Darth Fed reeled off five games in a row, enough to force the Serbian to change shirts in the hope that it would bring him more luck. It brought him one game in the first set.
The second set turned out to be a more competitive affair, as the Serbinator began to unleash some bullets to create break points early on. He broke away for the first time to lead 2-0, but the FedExpress caught up a few games later with his own break back.
Nole managed to remain on par as the set wound down, but he allowed himself to tighten up and hit some poor errors to give the Swiss a chance to claim the title. He duly did so with a love service game and a usual "Come On!"
Best match: Federer beat Murray 6-2, 7-6(8)
And so the U.S. Open buildup came to a conclusion. It was time for the real deal and the five-time defending champion, Federer, looked to be in prime form. Murray had displayed the type of tennis capable of carrying him to the title, but as the majors roll by his lack of silverware appears to become more and more of a cause for anxiety.
Nadal was not considered a serious contender, especially at the one slam that had eluded him. He is a six -time major champion, however, and writing him off would be brave.
Nole had rediscovered the aggressive tennis that took him to the title on Melbourne in 2008 and was not to be taken lightly. Delpo and A-Rod, too, had played tennis worthy of putting them in the "outside shot" column, but not necessarily anything beyond that.
Federer's reign in New York had seen him defeat five different opponents in the finals: Hewitt, Agassi, Roddick, Djokovic, and Murray. He had tamed the hype and lights of the Big Apple and made a home on the Arthur Ashe court. "Favourite" would be an understatement considering that he was also on won of the hottest streaks of his career.
The most surprising casualties in the early rounds fell upon the two best-known Andys. Roddick found himself locked in a serving marathon against semi-giant John Isner. Despite hitting 20 aces and winning seven more points than his opponent, A-Rod fell away with an early loss and another chance of reclaiming the trophy gone.
Surly Scot Murray looked about as energetic as a cat enjoying a nap on a porch in his match against Marin Cilic in the fourth round. Although the Croatian came out with a clear game plan and almost perfect execution, lacklustre would be a generous description of Murray's spark. He once again limped to a disappointing major result.
Rafa was hardly bullish in his performances but nonetheless fought as only he knows how to. He guts out five victories against the aggression of Kiefer, Monfils, and Gonzalez to make a return to the U.S. Open semifinals for a second consecutive year.
Juan Martin del Potro had impressed in his run to the last four, dropping two sets along the way. His movement and ball-striking were second to none, and, when he lays the hammer of a forehand down, it is close to seismic.
Swiss genius Federer wound his way through a tricky draw to reach the semifinals with the loss of two sets to former rival Hewitt and flashy Robin Soderling. He once again came across Novak Djokovic on Arthur Ashe for a third time in a row.
Nole had struggled at times, especially against qualifier Jesse Whitten and Fernando Verdasco, but would pose a significant hurdle for Roger. Both players looked comfortable in their surroundings and struck the ball cleanly from the start, but the FedExpress seemed to have that little bit of extra zing and creativity.
When it came to crunch time in the first set breaker, the Swiss cranked up the gears to produce some lights-out tennis, including one of those magical backhand half volleys that's so quick that it looks like a table tennis stroke.
The second set was almost a repeat of the first, as the high quality stroke-making continued. Federer continually punched holes with his forehand behind the Serb and quick darts into the net. Djokovic held his own with powerful forehands and flat backhands. This time, Federer danced around his backhand to unleash a screamer at 6-5 to take a commanding two sets to love lead.
The final set was, of course, the most memorable purely because of "the shot." No words can adequately describe that absolute rocket of a tweener hit by the "great one" at 6-5 30-0. Ridiculous.
With the defending champ in a sixth successive final in Flushing Meadows, his opponent was yet another different face. Delpo stepped out on court against Rafael Nadal like a man on a routine trip to work. He came, he saw, he bulldozed.
Unafraid of hitting into Nadal's strength, Juan Martin took his backhands early back cross court and ran around to unleash the forehand back in the same direction time and time again. The numbers—6-2, 6-2, 6-2—pretty much tell the story. The Argentine was head and shoulders above the Mallorcan, and, by the third set, it was carnage.
Most people still favoured Darth Fed to claim a sixth U.S. Open crown, but dark horse del Potro had sent out a pretty vivid message with his Mallorcan massacre. If Juan Martin del Potro was a chef, his speciality would have to be pancakes. The way he strikes his forehand and backhand is at times as flat as the maple-covered delight. No underestimation could be afforded.
As the final began, it seemed to be the story most were envisaging. Roger Federer looked very relaxed and played with consistent variety to keep the Argentine from gaining any rhythm. Del Potro was understandably so nervous that some of his forehands found the bottom of the net.
Consequently, Federer raced to a 6-3, 2-0 lead within 50 minutes. However, it was at this point that the 6 10" youngster began to relax and find some confidence. He stayed with Federer and didn't allow the Swiss to run away with a two-set advantage.
The real turning point of the match occurred at Federer's serving 5-4 up in the second set, on the brink of what was sure to be an unassailable lead.
After a quick 30-0 advantage slipped to 30-30, Federer approached the net off a cross-court forehand, and Delpo attempted a forehand slap pass down the line. The shot was called out and seemed it.
However, after a moment's deliberation, del Potro made a challenge, which, to the dismay of the hawk-eye hateful Federer, was declared to have gone in by the smallest possible margin. Del Potro consequently secured the break and went on to level at one set all.
Darth Fed was clearly frustrated by the Argentine's hawk-eye antics and the umpire's refusal to accept his complaint that his opponent was taking an unreasonable amount of time to make his challenges. Indeed, his mood was reminiscent to that of the infamous racquet-smashing in Miami earlier this year.
Regardless of this, Federer battled his way through the third set to secure a two set to one advantage, turning the screws on his lesser experienced opponent. What followed was nothing short of spectacular.
The Argentine, despite looking like a zombie, found some extraordinarily powerful strokes to break the Swiss' serve for the second time in the match. One of the forehands he struck from out wide was unreal in pace and projection. Even when fatiguing, he could turn the situation around with a few swings.
It was at this point that most were proved wrong and any assumption regularly made was undermined. Roger Federer's tank seemed to have run out of gas, while the youngster was not far from sprightly. Federer fumbled physically, and he struggled to get anything going.
After Federer let his early chances to break slip by, del Potro secured his maiden major title on his third match point with Federer serving 2-5 down.
After a tremendous amount of excitement, drama, and brilliant shot-making, the 20-year-old fell to the ground upon accomplishing what many of his adversaries had failed to do in five years: a victory over the Swiss in New York.
A look at the statistics point most blatantly to one aspect lacking in Federer's game: a high percentage of first serves. The Swiss had an overall percentage of 50 percent, compared to del Potro's 65 percent. Furthermore, the Basle native surrendered 11 points on double faults.
It was the worst serving performance to date for Federer in a final in New York. With his first serve failing and his opponent leaping upon second serves, the double faults can be explained, but it is nevertheless shocking.
And so the Grand Slam Season in 2009 came to a surprising close. The results and drama have been remarkable and memorable.
2009 brought tears, injury woes, new records, and new champions. We can only hope that the trend follows on into the new decade, and the excitement remains as high as it has been throughout this year.