NEW YORK—Nearly three hours into the 2013 U.S. Open men’s final, Rafael Nadal tripped and fell. It couldn’t, it seemed, have come at a worse time. Nadal and Novak Djokovic were knotted at one set each and 4-4 in the third. Rafa had thrown his best body blows at Novak in the first set, and Novak had answered with some jaw-dropping combinations in the second. Now neither of them owned the momentum; it felt like the match was starting from square one.
Nadal’s fall, which came as he was about to line up a forehand, made the score 0-30. On the next point, Djokovic lasered one of his customary returns onto the baseline to make it 0-40. The crowd in Ashe Stadium chanted for Nole; the momentum was poised to swing in his direction at the right moment. Except that Nadal, as has always been his stubborn habit, wouldn't let it. He hit a forehand winner at 0-40, an ace at 30-40, and a plunging overhead smash to hold. Now the crowd roared for Rafa; in the space of five minutes, the match had been turned upside down. No lead was safe for Nole now. He went up 30-0 in his next service game, but Nadal won four straight points and broke for the set with a cannon-shot forehand that landed on the baseline. His celebration—a Deep Lawnmower—was the celebration of a man who had just Houdini-ed his way out of a big hole and into a Grand Slam title. Rafa would lose just one more game in a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory.
This was Nadal and Djokovic’s third U.S. Open final in four years, and much like the last two, it was filled with lung-busting, side-to-side, slide-to-slide rallies. The first set was much like their other matches in 2012 and 2013; Nadal hit aggressively, moved the ball around the court and his serve around the box, and had success going after Djokovic’s forehand. The second set, though, was a trip back to 2011. Djokovic relaxed and found his very highest level of play, one that even Rafa couldn’t stay with. At 3-2, Nole won a 54-shot rally to break; at 4-3, he won another long rally to break, after Nadal essentially conceded it with a drop shot that was hit more in frustration than hope. Djokovic, much like had in 2011, had outlasted Rafa, and he ran out the set from there.
By the start of the third, it looked like Nole was going to outlast Nadal all the way to the title. Returning brilliantly and hauling off on his forehand, he broke Rafa in the opening game, held for 2-0, and had a point for a double-break lead in the next game. Unfortunately for Djokovic, his run of brilliance ended at exactly that moment. He hit a routine backhand long, Rafa held for 1-2, and the match tightened again. Djokovic, as he got closer to victory, was bound to fall to earth. When he did, Nadal was there waiting for him.
Unlike in their match in Montreal last month, Djokovic was the clear aggressor in this one. He hit 46 winners to Rafa’s 27; more crucially, he made 53 unforced errors to the Spaniard’s 20. It was mistakes that kept Djokovic from mounting any kind of a run in the final set, and Rafa ground him down with his usual lethal combination of speed and spin. The match reached a peak of ball-striking brilliance in the second and third sets, and despite an academic fourth, it ended up as a worthy rubber match among their Open finals.
It also put a cap on one of the most impressive months of Nadal’s already impressive career. He completed the first hat trick of U.S. hard-court titles since Andy Roddick did it 10 years ago, and he pretty much locked up the year-end No. 1 and player-of-the-year honors. From an historical perspective, Rafa won his 13th major title, and his first on a surface other than clay since 2010. That puts him one behind Pete Sampras, and, suddenly, just four behind Roger Federer.
For much of the past year, we’ve been saying that Rafael Nadal is already 27 years old. Right now, it feels more appropriate to say that he’s only 27. Count him out—in any set, on any surface, after any down moment in his career—at your peril.