Rafael Nadal's future better than ever

NEW YORK -- A year ago, Rafael Nadal was watching this tournament on television at home on his sofa in Mallorca, Spain.

And then the fragile state of his knees forced him to miss the beginning of the 2013 season, including the Australian Open. After a seven-month sabbatical, Nadal finally returned to tennis back in February at the backwater venue of Vina del Mar, Chile.

He made the final, but lost to Horacio Zeballos and everyone wondered -- including, perhaps, Rafa himself -- what his future would hold. In retrospect, we shouldn't have worried, for Nadal has carved out a tidy little living reinventing himself.

Monday evening at the National Tennis Center, he completed a comeback that was astonishing by even his own absurdly high standards.

The No. 2-seeded Nadal took down No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 for his second US Open title. He celebrated by rolling around the floor of the world's biggest tennis arena with sobbing joy.

Nadal, who won in 3 hours, 20 minutes, has never had a better run on the hard courts, his least favorite surface of them all.

How hungry was he after missing seven months?

"I was not that hungry, because I didn't think something like this could happen," Nadal said later. "I never thought about competing for all that I competed for this year, so it's just more than I dreamed. Feel very lucky for what happened since I come back."

In his on-court interview, Djokovic was asked what it was like to play against Nadal.

"Thanks for bringing that question up now," Djokovic deadpanned. "He was too good. He definitely deserved to win this match and this trophy. Definitely disappointing to lose a match like this."

The funny thing? If the 27-year-old Nadal hadn't taken that seven-month timeout, if he hadn't felt the overwhelming sense of urgency to shorten points on these punishing courts, he probably wouldn't have come close to this ludicrous laundry list of achievements. Rafa has now won:

• Two of the four Grand Slams this year, making him the overwhelming favorite for ATP Player of the Year.

• All 22 of his matches on hard courts, a personal best and the best mark among ATP World Tour players.

• Sixty of his 64 matches this year, a record that could wind up as one of the best ever.

"For a few [reasons]," Nadal said, "this is probably the most emotional one in my career. I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here. You play one match against one of the best players in the history. I know I have to be almost perfect to win. It means a lot for me to have this trophy with me today."

Djokovic is today's most flexible and fluid player. He has more variety than Nadal and is more than willing to come to net. Djokovic's two-handed backhand might be the best field leveler in the game for Nadal's lefty topspin forehand. Oh, and he might have the best return of serve in tennis. And yet, Djokovic has had a devil of a time beating Nadal in these most meaningful majors.

Nadal leads the most prolific series in Open era history 22-15 and even though Djokovic has an 11-7 edge on hard courts, he's managed to win only three of their 11 encounters in Grand Slams. For the record, this was the 12th time in the past 15 majors that either Nadal or Djokovic has won the title. Nadal holds a 7-5 edge.

Djokovic didn't miss by much this time; his mental toughness, once seen as a liability, might now be his greatest strength.

Meanwhile, the monopoly of the big four continues. They've won 34 of the past 35 major titles (Federer and Nadal lead with 13, followed by Djokovic with six and Andy Murray with two.)

It was a cool evening in Arthur Ashe Stadium, which was good news for Djokovic, who had weathered a far more difficult semifinal than Nadal. Djokovic went the distance, beating Stanislas Wawrinka in a five-set match that went 4 hours, 9 minutes. This was relevant because the same thing happened at Wimbledon -- Djokovic arrived in the final after surviving a gargantuan 4-hour, 43-minute semifinal match against Juan Martin del Potro -- and was clearly depleted when he faced eventual champion Murray

Nadal inflicted the first structural damage, breaking Djokovic's second serve. Even a surprise serve-and-volley wasn't enough to keep Nadal from taking a 2-1 lead with a crushing cross-court forehand winner. He broke Djokovic again in the seventh game to take a 5-2 lead with an exquisitely angled shot that took the Serb completely off the court. Nadal, in the midst of winning eight straight points, broke Djokovic at love.

And when he inevitably collected the set, Rafa had history behind him; only once in the past 20 years has the loser of the first set managed to go on to win the title. That was del Potro in 2009.

The second set flowed smoothly to the sixth game, when Nadal faced his third break point. The two athletes got into a rhythm and played perhaps the point of the fortnight. Djokovic, sometimes beyond the doubles alley, made some incredible gets and it was Nadal who finally buckled, sending a backhand into the net when Djokovic's deep shot forced him to hit something approaching a half volley. That came on the 54th shot of the rally and both players combined to run nearly one-fifth of a mile.

Djokovic extended his arms skyward and pumped his fists as if he had won the match. It was only the second time Nadal's serve had been broken in seven matches here. And Nadal broke him in the very next game to level the frame.

But then something odd happened: Djokovic broke him back. The service return was working, the forehand started revving up and when Djokovic won the 10-minute game with a backhand winner, he was serving for the second set. A few minutes later, after another backhand winner, the match was dead even.

Incredibly, Djokovic broke Nadal for the third straight time to open the third set. But, with Djokovic serving at 3-2, Rafa pulled even. Djokovic had three break points with Nadal serving at 4-all but couldn't convert. Naturally, the Spaniard broke him at 4-5 and escaped with the third set.

"It was disappointing that I dropped the third set, even though I felt like especially in first four, five games I was the one who was dictating the play," Djokovic said. "But it's all my fault. I made some unforced errors in the crucial moments with forehands and dropped the serve twice when I should not have. Next thing you know, all of a sudden it's two sets to one for him.

"Then he started playing much, much better after that, and I obviously could not recover after that loss."

Djokovic appeared to hit a wall after letting the third set slip away; Nadal broke him in his first service game to take a 2-0 lead and then again in the sixth game.

In the end, Nadal won a number of games that might have been Djokovic's. Credit his incredible retrieving ability and the frequent deployment of a backhand slice.

Djokovic, stretched to the limit, finished with 53 unforced errors, compared to only 20 for Nadal.

In the larger context, Nadal is easing into some glorified territory. He's got 13 majors now, breaking a tie with Roy Emerson, and finds himself all alone in third place all-time. Suddenly, Pete Sampras (14) and even Federer (17) seem within reach. Nadal, despite his history of knee histrionics, is the only player to win a Grand Slam title nine years in a row.

Technically, Djokovic remains the No. 1-ranked player, if only barely. Rafa, though, has a terrific chance to finish the year as the No. 1 player.

What does it mean to hit 13?

"Let me enjoy today," Rafa said. "For me, is much more than what I ever thought. Means a lot this one for me. I will say the same like I do every time. I'm going to keep working hard, doing my things to have more chances in the future. But 13 is an amazing number."