Men's tennis is now Rafa and the rest

NEW YORK -- As the last major championship on the calendar, the U.S. Open is always a natural time to do a reckoning of the tennis year. Here are five takeaways from a 2010 tournament that will be remembered for its blistering first-week heat, the residual wind and rains from Hurricane Earl, and some history that was made:

Top-ranked Rafael Nadal widened the gap between himself and Roger Federer in 2010: Nadal became only the seventh man to complete a career sweep of the four majors with his inexorable 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win over Novak Djokovic in Monday's rain-delayed final. He also became the first man to win the last three Slams of the year since Rod Laver did it in 1969.

Now get ready for Nadal to have to beat back questions about whether he can become the first man since Laver to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam -- a topic that should make Nadal squirm as much as the "best ever" talk about him does.

Nadal's evolution into an all-court player wasn't considered a sure thing when he hit the circuit. But the 24-year-old Spaniard has determinedly remade himself from a near-invincible clay-court specialist into a two-time winner on Wimbledon's grass, and now a man whose improved hard-court game and serve can beat anyone.

And Federer? He actually played quite well in New York until he hit the wall in his five-set semifinal loss to Djokovic. But the lethal precision Federer used to have in his prime, the unflappable way he'd outplay opponents in the clutch -- that's just not as reliably there anymore. And Federer knew it after his loss to Djokovic.

Federer uttered the most poignant quote of the tournament in his postmatch news conference when he morosely said, "Can't turn back the clock."

He was talking about some of the shots he chose. But he could have been talking about the clock on his career.

Will Djokovic replace Federer as Nadal's greatest challenger in 2011? He could. Federer is 29, which is old in tennis years. Given that Djokovic, 23, and Nadal are just a year apart in age, they are far more likely to keep repeating these major final showdowns in the next five years or so.

But as Andy Murray, Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych and Andy Roddick -- who all made early exits at the Open -- have found out, the ability of Federer and Nadal to will themselves to be consistently spectacular, not just great once in awhile, is a talent as vital as having a great serve or forehand.

Djokovic always has been seen as a guy who needs to be mentally and physically tougher. By outgunning Federer and battling Nadal so fiercely in New York, Djokovic defied that rap. But can he push himself to stay at such a high level? If he's hoping to overtake a workhorse like Nadal for No. 1 in the world, he has to.

Jimmy Connors' take on Nadal -- "He plays as if he's broke" -- is pitch perfect.

Venus Williams might not win another major: While everyone jumped on how Federer seemed to grow old before our eyes in his fifth set against Djokovic, the same could be said of 30-year-old Williams in her three-set semifinal loss to defending champion Kim Clijsters.

Williams won the opening set, but her rash of errors cost her the second-set tiebreaker. In the third set, Williams faded badly, even when she got a late break of Clijsters' serve and had a chance to serve out the match.

Even if you blame Williams' slippage on the fact she missed the summer hard-court season with a kneecap injury, the rest of her 2010 Slams were even worse: out in the quarters of the Australian Open, bounced in the fourth round of the French, out in the quarters again at Wimbledon. Williams' age seems to be a factor as well.

With Serena Williams and Justine Henin missing from the U.S. Open draw with injuries, and the notoriously nervous Vera Zvonareva having already advanced to the women's final before Williams and Clijsters met, Williams missed a golden opportunity here to break her 2 1/2-year drought without a Grand Slam title. If you exclude Wimbledon, Williams hasn't won a major anywhere else since 2003.

You never like to say never in sports, especially about a champion as regal as Williams. But she will be lucky to get a look at such a favorable path to a Slam title again.

Women's tennis is waiting for someone new to take charge: The Williams sisters and Clijsters remain the game's Big Three, but the pecking order of the younger players behind them didn't get much clearer by the Open's conclusion.

Caroline Wozniacki, still only 20 and seeded No. 1 in Serena's absence, gained even more respect with her strong move through the draw before Zvonareva upset her in the semis. The more Wozniacki plays, the more she reminds people of retired Spanish star Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, another counterpuncher with an effusive personality. But beyond Wozniacki, the women's draw was a jumble of former No. 1s who are trying to rise again (Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic), and some wannabe champions like Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka and Samantha Stosur, who still are seeking their first huge breakthrough titles.

Ivanovic's comments during the Open that she actually finds it harder to succeed when she plays well because that creates more expectations have been echoed by several other top women. Too bad. You don't hear Wozniacki parroting the logic that playing well is somehow "bad" or inhibiting. That fearlessness might explain why she is where she is, even without having the most power or biggest arsenal of shots on tour.

The state of American tennis didn't improve: The search for America's next great tennis player was a hot topic before the Open, but 18-year-old Melanie Oudin, last year's surprise quarterfinalist, regressed and lost in the second round. John Isner and Sam Querrey remained in the middle of the pack. Mardy Fish couldn't build on a terrific hard-court summer. Roddick lost early (again), and Patrick McEnroe resigned as Davis Cup captain, with no successor named.

Old standbys Mike and Bob Bryan saved the U.S. from a shutout by winning their third straight Open doubles title a day after Bob and Liezel Huber of South Africa teamed up for the mixed doubles crown.

One player whose stock did leap was Ryan Harrison, an 18-year-old qualifier from Shreveport, La., who now trains at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Harrison upset 13th seed Ivan Ljubicic in the first round and then showed off an impressive all-court game in a wild, five-set loss to 24-year-old Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky. It was easily the most entertaining match of the tournament's first week.

Jack Sock, another 18-year-old American, won the junior boys title.

Is it too early to say watch out in 2014?

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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