Rafa completes breathtaking journey

NEW YORK -- There may be no athlete in the world who possesses the raw, inevitable tenacity of Rafael Nadal.

In the fifth game of Monday's U.S. Open final, Nadal showed why he is the best tennis player in the world -- and why he may one day be considered the greatest ever.

He and Novak Djokovic had fought through four deuces and now, on Nadal's sixth chance to break Djokovic's serve, he finally delivered. Rafa's forehand topspin is a freak of physics, with far more rotation than any other player's. But on hard courts, Nadal has learned over the years how to flatten out that clay-court loop, narrow his margin of safety and rip winners -- even from neutral positions. You can see it coming, the way he leans into it, and on this occasion, the 13th point of the game, Nadal unloaded with a shot that kissed the line.

He did it throughout the match and, on a few memorable occasions, lashed running, backhand winners from spots on the court where it didn't seem geometrically possible.

The best defensive player in the game has developed one of the better offenses. How are you going to beat that?

After a nearly two-hour rain delay, Nadal finally won his first U.S. Open title, the final step of a breathtaking personal journey from a Spanish island in the Mediterranean Sea.

He defeated Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in a match that required 3 hours, 43 minutes.

Afterward, before he actually secured the trophy, Nadal was asked on the court what it meant.

"That's what I dreamt," he said. "Amazing to be here in this final. To have the trophy here with my hands -- in a few seconds -- going to be unbelievable."

Djokovic praised his opponent's effort:

"Right now," Djokovic said, "he's the best player in the world. Again, well done."

On the final points of the match, the flashbulbs started going off like fireflies winking in the night. You knew this was something special.

Rafa completed his career Grand Slam at the age of 24 years and 3 months, becoming the youngest man in the Open era to do it, and the third-youngest of all time. Roger Federer was more than three years older when he finally won in Paris a year ago, and Andre Agassi nearly five.

"For the first time in my career," Nadal said later, "I played a very, very good match in this tournament. I played in my best at the most important moment, and I am very, very happy for that."

He credited his serve with this breakthrough on this hard court. Then he was asked how it felt to win a career Grand Slam.

"At 24, for me it's more of a dream to have the U.S. Open," Nadal said. "I worked all my life through difficult moments to be here. But I never imagined to have four Grand Slams."

And though that sounds spectacular (and is, to be sure), this match made some history that might be even more impressive.

Nadal's victory gives him three consecutive major titles. Think about that. In a span of just over three months, he has won on the clay of Roland Garros, the grass of Wimbledon and now on the blue asphalt of the National Tennis Center.

No man had ever done that in a calendar year; Martina Navratilova (1984), Steffi Graf (1988) and Serena Williams (2002) are the only women to pull off the feat.

Federer has won three majors in a year three different times, but he never won three in a row in the same year. The only other time it's been done in the Open era was 41 years ago, when Rod Laver won all four.

"Yeah, it was pretty amazing tennis, quite a match," Laver told ESPN.com after the match from his California home. "He's proved he can play on all surfaces and play the brand of tennis necessary to win.

"You think of all the players in between me and him that could have won four or three in a row -- you have to be very fortunate. He fights as hard as anyone I've ever seen."

Three of Laver's major victories in 1969, it should be mentioned, were on grass.

Clearly, the match was colored by Sunday's washout.

Djokovic was at a physical disadvantage because his semifinal match was longer and ended later than Nadal's. The extra day of rest, Djokovic said, helped him recover, and the consensus of experts was that the postponement would make for a better match. Most made Rafa the favorite; it was only a question of whether he would win in three sets, four or five.

Djokovic, worn down by the assault on his service games all night, went quietly in the fourth. In the end, he saved 20 of 26 break points.

Nadal's progression over five years has been nothing short of astonishing.

The red clay of Roland Garros was similar to the stuff he played on growing up and he won the title there in his very first try, just a week past his 18th birthday. And though he has won four more since, that success was long predicted for him.

The slippery slope that is Wimbledon proved a bit more difficult. But Rafa forced himself to play closer to the baseline, flatten out his shots and move forward when an opening presented itself. He sharpened his volleys. After reaching two finals, he won there in 2008 and again earlier this year.

For many reasons, the U.S. Open was always going to present the biggest problem -- just as Roland Garros was destined to be the final piece for Federer and Andre Agassi. The firmness of the courts here mitigates his topspin and his marvelous movement. And, his liberal schedule always left him exhausted by the time he reached New York.

And so, Nadal went to work, problem-solving with his coach, uncle Toni Nadal. He curtailed his schedule, and didn't seem to extend himself in the two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Toronto and Cincinnati. When he arrived here, he fiddled around with a new less-wristy grip on his serve and found an extra 7 or 8 mph when he needed it.

And then he won the U.S. Open.

Relentless. Amazing. And yet, given how his career has unfurled, utterly predictable.

Where does the desire come from?

"Well," said Rafa after his semifinal match, "because I always thought I always can keep improving. That's why I am playing, to keep improving and to feel myself better player than before. I go to practice every day not to practice; I go to practice every day to try to learn something and to keep improving my level."

For years, it has been apparent that Nadal and Federer are engaged in an arms race regarding major titles. They have won 21 of the past 23 Grand Slam singles titles, a number that is difficult, even at length, to comprehend.

Although Federer holds the all-time record, with 16, through extrapolation, you can make a case that Rafa could eclipse him.

"He made a lot of titles," Nadal said. "I am more than happy with my titles. For sure, I think talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid. His titles say he is much better than me.

"It is not the right moment to talk about that. We will see what happens in the future. I am not a genius."

In winning here, Nadal becomes the second-youngest man to collect his ninth Grand Slam singles title. Only Bjorn Borg, the magnificent Swede, was younger, by a matter of several months. Federer did it at 25 and in his 30th major -- four more than Rafa.

Borg left the game at the age of 25 with 11 majors, but Nadal -- as always -- seems intent on moving forward. Federer won three majors in a year three different times, and this is Rafa's first triple play. And, since Rafa's a year ahead of Federer's all-time pace, the ball is in Nadal's court.

"Rafa's got a huge career in front of him -- and he's had a great career already," Laver observed. "But there are so many good players coming up and when [Juan Martin] del Potro comes back that's another guy who can win these things. It seems like it's going to be tougher and tougher to win them with the quality of play."

Can Rafa catch Roger?

Laver paused. "Yes," he said, "it's possible. But when you say he needs seven. That's a pretty good feat. To continually come back and win, I don't know."

And then he laughed.

"What if Rafa wins seven -- and Roger wins two more? I say, enjoy the competition while it goes along."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.