And then, of course, there was ample evidence of Nadal’s legendary between-the-ears fortitude. Late in the third, Djokovic had triple-break point to serve for a two-sets-to-one lead. Nadal saved all three break points, held serve, and broke the Serb for the set. He never looked back.
Nadal was once a bit of a curiosity: a clay-court specialist known as much for his innumerable tics and quirky rituals as his terre battue mastery. Even Monday, he was a slave to his routines, touching his crotch and shirt then fingering his hair before every serve—while obsessively making sure everything remained feng shui around his chair during changeovers. (And then making sure again.)
Yet these days he’s evolved into nothing less than an all-court phenomenon. This season, he’s 22-0 on hard courts, traditionally his weakest surface. He’s just the second man to win multiple titles on three different surfaces. His lifetime winning percentage, currently an absurd 83.7 percent, is better than anyone in the sport today. Incredibly, he entered the U.S. Open with a winning record against each of the other 127 players in the field.
There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer—a man whose game has been described as porn for aesthetes—as tennis's greatest, certainly as long as the Swiss maestro remains atop the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard with 17 trophies. Yet consider that Nadal has beaten Federer in 21 of their 31 meetings—and eight of their 10 matches at Grand Slams. Or that Nadal has won Olympic gold in singles and Federer hasn’t. Or that Nadal has won four more Davis Cups than Federer’s zero. Many have wondered aloud how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he's not conclusively the best of his time.
Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Great Britain’s Andy Murray together account for 34 of the past 35 Grand Slam championships. Such hegemony is unprecedented. (Consider that, over the same span, 24 different golfers have won majors.) The Big Four have turned the sport into their own crash test laboratory, challenging one another and raising the bar to heights previously thought impossible.
Could Nadal’s progression from raw athletic specimen to adaptable, intelligent all-around player be the finest product of his era? Barring injury, he should win at least a few more French Opens, where he’s lost exactly once in 60 career matches. (He’s already the odds-on favorite for next year’s tourney.) Five more majors overall is a tall order, but you'd be mad to bet against him.
"I'm gonna keep working hard, I'm gonna keep doing my things to have more chances in the future to be competitive and win tournaments," he said, with a wry grin, after last night’s match. "But let me enjoy today."