What a year it's been for Rafael Nadal.
On Monday, as he fell to the ground and soaked in the fact that he had just defeated Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to win the second U.S. Open title of his career, he finally let out all of the emotion that he had been keeping in.
There's nothing quite like seeing a grown man cry, and Nadal had plenty of reasons to be crying tears of joy in the middle of Arthur Ashe Stadium. His past seven months have been simply other-worldly.
There was no doubt that this title, more than any other in his phenomenal 2013, meant the world to him. This one was dominant. This one was undeniable.
Since coming back on tour after a seven-month layoff in February, Nadal is 60-3 with 10 titles in 12 finals. He has now beaten No. 1 Djokovic three times in 2013, and overall is 17-1 this season against Top 10 opponents.
He's No. 1 in the ATP Race Rankings by an almost insurmountable margin, despite the fact that he missed the Australian Open and lost in the first round at Wimbledon.
He has won five of the six Masters Events he's played in this year, and two of the three Slams. Overall, he now has 13 major championships, 26 Masters 1000 titles and 60 ATP titles.
But perhaps most impressively, this U.S Open victory kept him undefeated—22-0—on hard courts this year. (Keep in mind, hard courts used to be his worst surface.)
A year ago, Nadal was missing his second major of the year and staring at a knee injury that threatened the future of his already legendary career. There's no way that even he or his team could have ever imagined that he would have a return to glory like this.
It has been a comeback for the ages.
The final on Monday evening against Djokovic was perhaps the greatest test he's had to face yet, considering how much Djokovic loves hard courts. The two have a heated rivalry, and although Nadal led the head-to-head 21-15 going into the final, Djokovic had the edge in most of their hard court meetings.
With both men battling for their second slam of the year and an edge for the year-end No. 1 ranking, it was slated to be another epic battle. But, in Nadal-Djokovic terms, this match was fairly straight-forward.
Though there were plenty of fireworks in the second and third sets, including one 54-stroke rally that Djokovic ended up winning to get a break, Nadal dominated the first and fourth sets, and ended up winning in three hours and 21 minutes.
Djokovic was actually up a break in the third set and had momentum on his side after snatching the second, but then Nadal did what he does best—he dug deep and fought. The depth on his backhand kept knocking Djokovic out of position, his forehand was deadly and every time he came forward it seemed to be for a winner.
Even when he could muster his best tennis, he just couldn't sustain it for long enough to bother the steady and ruthless Nadal.
The Spaniard has never been more aggressive, more confident or more focused on a tennis court in his entire career. For his opponents, that's a terrifying thought.
Right now, there's no doubt about the fact that this is Nadal's tour. The 27-year-old is playing the best tennis of his life, and his ability to dominate on a surface that he used to disdain, and immediately after a scary first-round loss at Wimbledon, speaks to his resiliency and ability to adapt.
With his 13th major in his pocket, Nadal is now just one slam behind Pete Sampras for a tie for second on the all-time majors list. While he still trails Roger Federer's 17, it's important to remember that Nadal is still in his prime, and right now he has a decided edge over all of his rivals.
So, while he cries tears of joy, the rest of the tour is likely weeping for another reason.
Nobody is ever completely unbeatable in tennis, but these days, Rafael Nadal is awfully close. And he's showing no signs of stopping.
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