Rafael Nadal captures second U.S. Open title with win over Djokovic
In the end, Nadal continued his recent hardcourt dominance, capping a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory in three hours and 21 minutes.
The 37th and latest installment of the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic rivalry was fraught with historic implications for the world's No. 1 and No. 2-ranked tennis players.
Entering Monday's U.S. Open final, each man had won one Grand Slam event this year and the latest battle would give one player a second major and the distinction of being perceived as the No. 1 player in the world.
In the end, Nadal continued his recent hardcourt dominance, capping a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory in three hours and 21 minutes by jumping up in celebration and then falling on his back on the Arthur Ashe Stadium court after Djokovic sent a forehand into the net on match point.
The crowd of 22,000 that roared in approval included Jessica Alba, David Beckham, Justin Timberlake, Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart and Rod Laver, one of the greatest players in tennis history.
"First thing, very, very emotional," said Nadal, who picked up a total of $3.6 million in prize money. "Probably only my team knows how much means the match of today for me. Playing against Novak always is a very special feeling. Probably nobody brings my game to the limit like Novak does, so congratulations, Novak, you are an amazing player."
After missing last year's event with a balky left knee that kept him off the tour for seven months, Nadal won his second U.S. Open title and 13th career major. He now ranks one behind Pete Sampras' 14 at third all-time, and four behind the all-time leader Roger Federer (17), Nadal's longtime rival.
"Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible," Djokovic said. "Whatever he achieved so far in his career is something that everybody should respect, no question about it.
"He's definitely one of the best tennis players to ever play the game. Looking at his achievements and his age at this time, he still has a lot of years to play the game."
Nadal returned in February after a seven-month hiatus with a creaky left knee, amid questions about his future. He won the French Open — beating Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth set in an epic semifinal — but lost in the first round at Wimbledon to the unheralded Steve Darcis. Questions once again loomed about how his creaky knee would affect his future.
But Nadal stormed back on the summer hardcourt circuit, winning titles in Montreal and Cincinnati and entered the Open as the prohibitive favorite. He played here without any tape on his knee and moved as well as he has in recent memory.
With his win over Djokovic he has now won 22 straight hardcourt matches, pretty impressive for a man once known as a clay-court specialist.
Nadal improved to 22-15 against Djokovic and has won six of their last seven encounters. Nadal improved to 8-3 against Djokovic in majors.
"It's what we do, always pushing each other to the limit," Djokovic said. "That's the beauty of our matches."
After losing the first set in 42 minutes, Djokovic fought back and broke Nadal three straight times bridging the second and third sets. The first break put Djokovic up 4-2 and was only the second time Nadal had been broken in 89 service games.
The break came only after an epic 54-shot rally that stoked up the crowd and ended with Nadal hitting a backhand into the net. Djokovic looked up into the stands and pumped his fist in celebration.
Djokovic closed out the second set on his own racquet with a backhand winner and it looked like the crowd might be in for a five-setter.
But the match turned in the third set when Nadal fought back from a 1-3 deficit. He served at 4-all and overcame a 0-40 deficit to take a 5-4 lead. Nadal then smacked a forehand winner into the corner on set point, crouched down and pumped his fist several times.
"It's like it was a momentum change out there from love-40, 4-all third set," Djokovic said. "He started playing really good. He served well few points. I didn't do anything I felt wrong in these few points. He didn't make a mistake. He served well. He came to the net."
In the end, Nadal broke Djokovic 7-of-12 times, while Djokovic could only break Nadal 3-of-11.
Nadal is now in prime position to move up the all-time slams list. If he were to win the Australian Open in January he would have 14 majors and at least one on every surface.
The way he's going right now, there's no reason to bet against him challenging Federer's all-time mark in the not-too-distant-future.
"This guy battles harder than anyone we've seen on a tennis court," John McEnroe said on CBS. "There's no doubt about that."
Follow Adam Zagoria on Twitter @AdamZagoria.