In what can only be described as a tension-filled match, Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 to win the 2013 U.S. Open title. It was a legendary win for Nadal, who moved into third all-time with 13 Grand Slam championship wins.
While Djokovic didn't walk away victorious, he too remains on a legendary career path.
Djokovic battled Nadal as well as anyone could've asked, earning limitless rallies and break point opportunities. Every time the world's No. 1 appeared to break through, however, Nadal would counter in magnificent fashion.
Plain and simple, it's hard to believe anyone has ever played as well as Djokovic did and lost a match in such a statistically lopsided manner. Perhaps this is the one instance in which the numbers do lie.
One of the longest rallies you'll ever see should be enough to convince you of that.
That rally between Djokovic and Nadal was 54 shots long— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 9, 2013
When a match has 54-shot rallies and not a single set is decided by fewer than two games, it's a testament to the winner's greatness.
With all of this being established, Djokovic has nothing to hang his head about after the 2013 U.S. Open final. Nadal may have won, but the unparalleled success the Spaniard is experiencing should not cause us to overlook the unbelievable feats Djokovic has achieved.
It all starts with his path to legendary status in Grand Slam events.
When it comes to professional tennis, the measure of one's greatness is how many Grand Slam titles he or she manages to win. There's no rational complaint about that approach, as the major tournaments set the stage for players to prove their elite status.
But winning those events isn't the only factor worth acknowledging. Sometimes, it's important to take a step back and see how players fare at those events over an extended period of time.
Starting with the quarterfinals, Djokovic has used the 2013 U.S. Open to become one of the most consistent players to ever live, as this tweet by ESPN Stats & Info illustrates:
Novak Djokovic: 18th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance (3rd-longest streak in Open Era)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 3, 2013
It doesn't end there.
While Djokovic has been consistent in every Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open brings out the best in him. Already in possession of the 2011 U.S. Open title, Djoker experienced success long before he even reached the finals in 2011.
There's something about New York that brings out the best in players.
By defeating Stanislas Wawrinka in dramatic fashion, Djokovic elevated his record to 5-2 in his seventh straight U.S. Open semifinal, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Novak Djokovic: reaches 7th straight US Open semifinal (4-2 in those matches)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 6, 2013
Although he didn't win the event in 2013, Djokovic has established himself as a favorite at every Grand Slam event but the French Open. Even without a win at Roland Garros, the short list of players who could upset Nadal—and we're talking very short—includes Djokovic's name.
And rightfully so.
Nadal's reign of terror has many believing this is the first time both he and Djokovic have simultaneously been at the top of their respective games. Nadal was injured during Djokovic's rise to No. 1, and the Serbian wasn't quite what he is today while Nadal first began to challenge Roger Federer.
The Djokovic versus Nadal rivalry is becoming more common in Grand Slam events. Time and time again, they meet in the finals.
This year was just a continuation of that trend.
Rafael Nadal advances to US Open Final. Will be 6th time Djokovic-Nadal will meet in a Grand Slam Final (tied for 2nd-most all-time)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 7, 2013
Nadal may have the edge, but if Djokovic can reach the final, he can win it too. He's done it already, and if history is an indication of the future, he'll do it again.
Since 2007, Djokovic has reached the finals of the U.S. Open in five of seven events. That includes each of the past four years—winning in 2011 and finishing as the runner-up in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Is Novak Djokovic an all-time great?
Djokovic also lost in the finals at the 2012 French Open and 2013 Wimbledon.
For all that's been made of Djokovic's losses in Grand Slam events, however, it's important to note he has no trouble succeeding. He's won three consecutive Australian Open titles (and also took home the gold in 2008), and he won the 2011 U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
Despite experiencing a relatively short period of greatness, Djokovic is tied for 21st all-time in Grand Slam titles with six.
Other greats to have won six Grand Slams include Boris Becker, Don Budge and Stefan Edberg. In other words, even if Djokovic were to never win another major title, he'd still go down as one of the most accomplished men in professional tennis.
For that reason, a loss at the U.S. Open final is nothing more than a minor setback on his path to legendary status. Like many of the greatest players, Djoker has met a rival who pushes him to his limits.
Losing at the U.S. Open simply develops the rivalry that will help shape Djokovic's legacy as one of the greatest of all time.