An emotional Rafael Nadal savoured one of the most special grand slam titles of his career after defeating Novak Djokovic to win the US Open.
Twelve months ago Nadal watched Andy Murray beat Djokovic on TV at home in Majorca as he faced up to yet another lengthy absence with knee problems.
When he returned to the tour in February, the Spaniard was unsure whether his body would allow him to play at the same level again.
But seven months later, Nadal can reflect on the most dominant period of his career after two grand slam trophies, eight ATP Tour titles and only three losses.
Djokovic remains world No. 1 for now but it is just a matter of time before Nadal overtakes him, and there is no doubt the 27-year-old is the best player in the world.
He proved that in a US Open final that reached heights to match any of their epic encounters in the second and third sets before Djokovic faded to go down 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 after three hours and 21 minutes.
After shaking hands with his vanquished opponent, Nadal lay flat on his front sobbing into the court before celebrating with his team. The Spaniard said: “For a few reasons, this season is probably the most emotional one in my career. I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here.
“You play a match against one of the best players in history like Novak on probably his favourite surface, so I knew I had to be almost perfect to win.
“It means a lot for me have this trophy with me today. It’s just amazing. I’m very, very happy, and I just say thank you very much to everybody who helped me to make that possible. It’s a really special moment for me.”
That Nadal could win the French Open for an eighth time after his injury problems was no surprise but it is his dominance on hard courts that has been the real revelation. The Spaniard has always found the surface hardest on his body but his victory over Djokovic made it 22 matches unbeaten this season on hard and four titles.
Nadal now has 13 grand slam titles – one adrift of Pete Sampras and four behind Roger Federer – after winning for a second time in New York.
He said: “I never thought something like this could happen. I was so excited to be back on tour trying to be competitive. I never thought about competing for all that I competed for this year. All the Masters 1000s, two grand slams. It’s just more than a dream for me, and I’m very happy for everything.
“I feel very lucky about what’s happened since I came back.”
No two men in the Open era have met more than Nadal and Djokovic, and there were high hopes their 37th clash could be one of their best.
Nadal was a level above Djokovic in the first set but the momentum swung in the second as the Serbian broke for 4-2 after an astonishing 54-shot rally that drew a standing ovation.
The second seed hit straight back but now Djokovic was the more attacking player and he broke again for 5-3 before levelling the match.
Nadal had only dropped serve once in the whole tournament before the final but Djokovic managed a third in a row at the start of the third set.
The top seed appeared to have Nadal where he wanted him but his level dropped again to be broken back for 3-3.
The key moments of the match came at the end of that set. First Djokovic had Nadal at 0-40 in the ninth game but was unable to break, and when the Spaniard created a set point in the next game he took it with a bullet forehand down the line.
Nadal pumped his fist in celebration, and Djokovic was unable to sustain his level in a rather disappointing fourth set.
“It was a really important set,” Nadal said of the third. “I started so slow the first game, but the end of the second, beginning of the third, Novak was playing just amazing.
“When Novak plays that level, I am not sure if anybody can stop him. I knew that it was really important I stayed only one break behind. If I lost the second break, then the set was over.
“So I tried to be there, I kept fighting for every ball, and I tried to wait for my moment.”
Djokovic blamed himself for letting Nadal back in, saying: “It’s all my fault.
“I made some unforced errors in the crucial moments with forehands and dropped the serve twice when I should not have. The next thing you know, it’s two sets to one for him.
“Then he started playing much, much better, and I obviously could not recover after that loss.
“I have to be satisfied with the final, even though I would have loved to win this match.
“But it was obvious that in the important moments he played better tennis, and that’s why he deserved to win. I congratulate him, and I move on.”