Djokovic claimed the 54-stroke rally, thrusting his arms skyward like a triumphant prize-fighter amid an ear-splitting ovation. But it was Nadal who won the match, refusing to break after his early lead evaporated and his opponent, it seemed, could hit only winners that tagged the lines and drove him into a defensive crouch.
With the 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory, Nadal crafted a comeback that was as improbable as the comeback he has crafted all season, winning 60 of his 63 matches since returning from a seven-month hiatus forced by the chronic tendinitis in his knees.
Against the 26-year-old Djokovic, regarded as the sport’s speediest retriever, Nadal proved the fitter man, pummeling the Serb with heavy topspin forehands, crafty backhand slices and rock-steady serves to win the 13th Grand Slam title of his career.
“Probably nobody brings my game to the limit like Novak,” said Nadal, 27, who fell on his back in relief when Djokovic’s final forehand plowed into the net to end the match, then jogged to the net to embrace his longtime rival.
With the triumph, Nadal moved into third on the list of all-time major titlists, behind Roger Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14), and cemented his status as the most relentless competitor in tennis.
He also collected $3.6 million for his effort, which includes a $1 million bonus for dominating the North American hard-court season that feeds into the season’s final major.
Monday’s match was the 37th between Nadal and Djokovic and their third in a U.S. Open final. Nadal won the title in 2010; Djokovic exacted revenge in 2011.
Nadal had steamrolled into the match, compiling a 21-0 mark on hardcourts this season. He had lost his serve only once all tournament and conceded only one set.
But he hadn’t faced a challenger like Djokovic, the game’s best defender and a gutsy battler with a go-for-broke approach to big points.
While fans relished the matchup of the world’s No. 1 and 2 players, it was a fight both players knew would drain their last breath. Their last clash in a major, three months ago in the French Open’s semifinals, was a 4 hour, 37-minute classic that Nadal won 9-7 in the fifth set. And they staged the longest Grand Slam final in history, a 5 hour, 53-minute standoff for the 2012 Australian Open title that Djokovic claimed.
Monday’s reprise drew glitterati from around the globe, including Queen Sofia of Spain, famed Scottish actor Sean Connery and soccer legend David Beckham. But it was the 24,000-plus everyday ticket-holders who made Arthur Ashe Stadium crackle with electricity, screaming “Vamos Rafa!” and chanting “No-le! No-le!” at every shift of momentum.
Nadal got the first break of serve, three games in, drilling spin-slathered forehands and ripping service returns that knocked the nimble Serb on his heels.
Djokovic seemed a fraction of a second slow, both in reaction time and footwork. And for a player like Nadal, a millisecond’s hesitation is a gift begging to be exploited.
The Spaniard reeled off eight consecutive points to break again, then closed the opening set in 43 minutes, with the error-prone Djokovic sending yet another forehand long.
Nothing came easily for either early in the second set, which featured the 54-point rally that ended on a backhand error by Nadal. Djokovic rode the momentum for the next five games, breaking Nadal three times in his next four service games.
The score knotted at one set each, the Serb was in full attack mode rolling into the third set, bolting to a 3-1 lead, while Nadal ran himself ragged chasing down Djokovic’s blasts.
After breaking the Serb to draw even at three games apiece, Nadal took a nasty tumble, staggering backwards as he struggled to fire back a ball that tagged the baseline. He bounced back up, then fended off three break points, firing his first ace of the match, and went on to hold a game that lasted nearly 10 minutes.
Serving for the set at 5-4, Nadal fended off three break points, then held to take a two-sets-to-one lead. He dropped to his knees and pumped his fist, while his cadre of coaches, family and friends in his box erupted in fist pumps.
Nadal kept the pressure on, breaking at his first opportunity in the fourth set. And he seemed to break Djokovic’s resolve with it, closing the match in 3 hours 21 minutes.
Afterward, Nadal called it the most emotional match of his career.
And Djokovic, who finished with more winners than Nadal (46 to 27) but more than twice the unforced errors (53 to 20), conceded that the better player won.
“Many times you fall as an athlete,” Djokovic said. “You have to learn the lesson and keep on going, keep on fighting, keep on improving.
“I’m still 26, and I believe the best time in my career is about to come. As long as I believe it, the fire of love towards the game is inside of me. And as long as that’s present, as long as I feel it, I’m going to play this sport with all my heart, as I did I [the] last 10 years.”