When they embraced at the net, Rafael Nadal momentarily rested his head on Novak Djokovic's shoulder. This was classic Nadal, killing another opponent with kindness.
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Nadal's 'most emotional' win
Tennis player Rafael Nadal says his win at the US open is his most emotional yet.
Nadal snatched the US Open from Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, just when his opponent thought he was in control of a fierce men's final. Then Nadal told him, ''You are an amazing player - you will finish your career as one of the best in history.''
Left unsaid was that it would not be anywhere near the same transcendent level as Nadal, if only because Nadal would never say such a thing. Rare is the competitor with his on-court persistence and post-match elegance. Such a combination cannot be easily understood or explained.
Late in the third set, Djokovic had triple-break point to serve for a two-sets-to-one lead. The next thing he knew, Nadal had held serve and broken him for the set.
''I obviously could not recover,'' Djokovic said.
The match, and Nadal's 13th grand slam tournament victory, were essentially in the bag. The contest ended early, by their standards, in a mere three hours, 21 minutes. It was two hours, 32 minutes sooner than their record five-set marathon final at the 2012 Australian Open, won by Djokovic. They also played a four hours, 37 minute final at the French Open in June, won by Nadal.
These days, fans do not just go to a grand slam match between Djokovic and Nadal. They make arrangements at home for the dog to be walked. They pack a toothbrush and a change of underwear. They commit to an evening of tennis as a wrenching war of attrition. And perhaps some sceptics find themselves wondering how contemporary sport can scale such physical and recuperative barriers without resorting to chemical shortcuts.
''When you love what you make, you always try to improve,'' said Toni Nadal, the newly crowned champion's uncle and coach. He was not talking about the financial rewards, though the $US1 million bonus Nadal will take home with the $US2.6 million in prizemoney will be happily deposited in the bank.
Once upon a time, Nadal was a claycourt teenage phenomenon. Then he developed a better-than-average serve, the ability to win points at the net, and soon he was a two-time Wimbledon champion.
Nadal claims US Open
Rafael Nadal defeats world number one Novak Djokovic in gripping US Open final.
At 27, he was supposed to be vulnerable on hardcourts, especially at the end of a long grand slam season, because the long points he was known for playing were not good for his tendonitis-ridden knees.
After losing in the first round at Wimbledon, Nadal proceeded to run the hardcourt summer table, winning in Montreal, Ohio and New York. To reduce the physical stress, he hit riskier forehands down the line rather than play them the safer way, cross court.
Against Djokovic, he won his share of the longer points too, including one that lasted a head-spinning 54 strokes. ''He can't run like when he was young,'' Toni Nadal said with surprising candour. ''And when you have some problems, you know you should make something different.''
You evolve. You grow. What does not change is Nadal's demeanour, win or lose. He will not even go so far as to say that his generation of players, almost universally credited for raising the qualitative bar, is more special than any other.
In the shadow of his shared narrative with Roger Federer, his rivalry with Djokovic is slowly creeping into the discussion of the greatest. Monday night's final was their 37th match, six more than Nadal has played against Federer.
Federer-Nadal remains the industry standard, especially with Nadal now four behind Federer's 17 grand slam single titles with more to come, assuming his knees do not fail him.
''Well, 13 slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible,'' Djokovic said. ''He still has a lot of years to play, so that's all I can say.''
That was more than Nadal would say on the subject of the longer view. ''I go step by step, day to day, week by week,'' he said.
Or point by point. It is why Nadal, the long-crowned king of clay, has a real chance to establish an all-courts monarchy for the record book. Bet against him with extreme caution.
New York Times
MOST GRAND SLAM WINS
17 - Roger Federer (SUI)
14 - Pete Sampras (USA)
13 - Rafael Nadal (ESP)
12 - Roy Emerson (AUS)
11 - Bjorn Borg (SWE), Rod Laver (AUS)
10 - Bill Tilden (USA)
US OPEN MEN’S FINAL STATISTICS
Aces: 6 1
Double faults: 2 1
1st serve percentage: 68 64
Break points/break points won: 3/11 7/12
Net points won: 22/36 17/23
Winners: 46 27
Unforced errors: 53 20
Total points: 102 121
Fastest serve: 127mph 125mph
CAREER OF RAFAEL NADAL
RAFAEL NADAL (ESP)
World ranking: 2
Birthdate: June 3, 1986
Birthplace: Manacor, Mallorca, Spain
Residence: Manacor, Mallorca, Spain
Turned Pro: 2001
Coach: Toni Nadal
Career singles titles: 60
Grand Slam singles titles: 13 (Australian Open 2009; French Open 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013; Wimbledon 2008, 2010; US Open 2010, 2013)
Career prize money: $US60,510,697
Best US Open result: Champion (2010, 2013)