NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal was bludgeoning forehands at Novak Djokovic, and sprinting from corner to corner, the baseline to the net and back to the baseline again, refusing to surrender even one blasted point. But all that torture was over now. Now it was just the months when Nadal was so sore-kneed he wasn't sure he'd be healthy enough to be back on the tennis tour, period, that came rushing back to him and sent the 27-year-old Spaniard collapsing to the ground at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday. Then he buried his face in the crook of one arm to have a good, shoulder-heaving cry.
The greatest and most affirming year of Nadal's career had just ended with a US Open victory over Djokovic that catapulted Nadal right back into the greatest of all-time discussion.
If 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer isn't feeling his grip on Best Ever slipping after this, and Pete Sampras, who resides just one Grand Slam title ahead of Nadal's new total of 13, isn't feeling the Spaniard's breath on his neck like a hot draft from hell, the two of them should.
After the year he just had, Nadal has served notice that both men are in danger of being eclipsed when it comes to who should be regarded as the best men's player in history.
The level that Nadal and Djokovic pushed each other to before Nadal pulled away to a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory was that consistently spectacular. And it was no wonder that he thanked Djokovic so profusely afterward. It's unlikely Nadal would be able to cement his place in history so strongly if he didn't have such a worthy rival who demands as much out of him as Djokovic does.
"That's what we do when we play," Djokovic shrugged.
By any measure -- head-to-head career statistics, the anecdotal evidence, or just the eyeball test -- it's Djokovic, not the more celebrated Federer, who has been Nadal's most consistently dangerous opponent.
The lag in acknowledging that these two are the best rivalry the men's game has seen since Agassi-Sampras needs to be eliminated. Starting now. And the same goes for Nadal's outdated "lunchpail player" or "claycourt specialist" labels that always left him suffering in any comparison to Federer, tennis' greatest stylist of all-time.
When asked if the "only-a-claycourter" label bothered him, Nadal shot back "No" -- then did something almost unprecedented for him in the past: He actually bragged about himself a little.
"I knew I was a good player on hard[court] before," Nadal said. "I understand people say I am a claycourt specialist ... But I was able to play five finals in Wimbledon, I think. Five, yeah? I was able to play three finals in US Open. I was able to play two finals in the Australian Open, so ..."
So there, he might as well said.
Djokovic has played epic matches against Nadal in some of those other venues too.
Given his now 3-3 record versus Nadal in Slam finals, Djokovic hasn't totally assumed the lesser role Andre Agassi had in his rivalry with Sampras. But like Agassi back then, Djokovic is the man whose game provides the best X-ray of just how much will and stamina and variety of shots Nadal has to summon. Don't forget, it was Djokovic -- not the red-hot Nadal -- who came into this match with a 97-week stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking that Nadal had previously held for two years. But that was before injuries to Nadal's knees started to chip away at the glowing appraisals about his future, shadowing every prediction of where he might end up in history when it's all said and done.
Nadal seems to have shelved the longevity worries for now, too, after the way he stormed back to dominate the tour this year. In addition to being the only men's player to win two Slams, he has won 10 of the 13 tournaments he entered, starting slowly as a wild card entry in a modest tournament in Chile, and building up, up, up from there.
Along the way, that old conundrum people have always asked -- how can Federer be considered the greatest of all-time if he can't even win the head-to-head showdown against Nadal the greatest rival of his generation? -- isn't really uttered much anymore. Federer is understandably showing his age, and out of the Top 5. But Nadal is heading toward No. 1 on the all-time Slam list like a bottle rocket.
And it's the quality of these epic, must-see showdowns with Djokovic that may just allow him to close the last bit of ground he'll need to be regarded as best ever.
Nadal has a 22-15 career won-lost edge against the Serbian star (compared to a 21-10 advantage over Federer). Nadal and Djokovic's five-hour, 53 minute Australian Open final last year pushed both of them to such a brink of exhaustion the two of them needed folding chairs just to survive the trophy ceremony after Djokovic won. Early this summer, Nadal's rally from a 2-4 hole to a 9-7 win in the fifth set of their French Open semfinal was equally memorable.
Many people thought that showdown -- not Andy Murray's Wimbledon breakthrough at long last -- was the match of the year -- until this one, that is.
Djokovic is worthy of a compliment that used to be said only about Nadal: You can't really kill him on court; you can only hope to survive a match against him.
He has the stamina and resiliency and bravado to match Nadal. Like Nadal, he has a breathtaking variety of shots he can conjure up. And he has the guts to go for them: daring drop shots from the baseline; cross-court forehands that crack off his racket and pound down just inside the opposite corner of the court; passing shots that ride down the side rails on a low, hard line.
Monday, he and Nadal threw everything they could think of at each other -- never moreso that during an incredible 54-stroke rally in the second set that Djokovic won to break Nadal's serve, then celebrated by strutting around like a prizefighter with both fists raised in the air.
But Nadal broke Djokovic back the very next game. Djokovic leveled the match at one-set all anyway. He was still controlling the match until a two-game swing in the third that, as it turned out, decided everything. First, Nadal wriggled out of a triple breakpoint hole to hold serve. Then he broke Djokovic's serve and rolled on to win the third set. Djokovic didn't deny he sagged a little after that. He was angry at himself and weary of being outdone. And Nadal just pouring it on stronger in the fourth.
Afterward, Nadal shook his head and said he'd amazed even himself this year. He admitted he never took winning anything for granted again when he got healthy. He recounted how that was not a given even in February of this year, when he began his comeback unsure what to expect after so many days in the gym with "No result."
Surviving all that to flourish is what Nadal was referring to after the match -- after the tears, and after he'd thanked Djokovic -- when he said, "For a few [reasons], this season is probably the most emotional one in my career ... When Novak plays at that level, I am not sure if [anybody] can stop him."
But Nadal did. Which only revived the argument that he's not just back on track in 2013. He's again headed toward being the greatest of all-time.