NEW YORK — It was early afternoon Monday at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and Rafael Nadal’s father, Sebastian, and other members of the Nadal clan were wandering through the US Open Court of Champions snapping photographs of the plaques honoring inductees past.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Nadal looked like a long shot for a place on that wall. He was a clay-court champion first and foremost, then a grass-court champion.
But he is among the greats on all Grand Slam surfaces now and Monday, he put an exclamation point on the most astonishing hard-court season of his career by beating his new archrival, Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, to win the US Open championship.
“For a few things, this season is probably the most emotional one in my career,” said Nadal, 27, from the Spanish island of Majorca. “I felt I did everything right to have my chance here. You play one match against one of the best players in the history in Novak and No. 1 in the world on probably his favorite surface. I knew I had to be almost perfect to win.”
Watching him with no tape on his left leg and no ball seemingly too far out of reach, one would find it difficult to believe that he had seriously considered skipping hard-court tournaments altogether earlier this season to protect himself from a recurrence of the knee problems that had kept him off the tour for seven months.
But Nadal, perhaps the most relentless competitor in the sport’s long and talent-rich history, is nothing if not resilient; nothing if not competitive. He plays, by his own confession, not just to win titles but to have the puritanical pleasure of working for each and every point.
“I am a positive player, not a negative player,” Nadal said.
It is the process more than the destination for Nadal, but he still looked more than satisfied when he had finished off Djokovic with a sliver of moon visible in the sky and more than a few tears visible in his eyes and the eyes of those closest to him.
“Grande, grande, grande, grande, grande,” came the shouts from his camp after he had picked himself up off the court and eventually jogged to the edge of the court to commune with them.
This victory, more grueling than the score line would suggest, gave Nadal a second US Open title to go with the first he won in 2010 with another four-set victory over Djokovic. It also gave him a 13th Grand Slam singles title that seemed anything but unlucky.
“Thirteen is an amazing number,” Nadal said.
But perhaps the most remarkable statistic after a victory that generated plenty of them was that it preserved Nadal’s perfect record on hard courts this season. He is now 22-0, a figure that would have seemed unthinkable in the years when Nadal’s most emblematic rival, Roger Federer, was winning five straight titles at the US Open.
For now, Federer remains the career leader with 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but Monday’s victory thrusts Nadal ever more into the conversation about who deserves to be called the greatest player of this era.
“Let me enjoy today,” Nadal said with a grin, pushing the place-in-history questions to a later date.
Nadal has won eight French Opens, two Wimbledons, two US Opens, and one Australian Open. He also holds a winning record over every one of his major rivals, Federer included.
Djokovic, an elastic 26-year-old Serb, has given Nadal plenty of trouble, never more than in 2011 and early 2012 when he reeled off seven straight victories.
But Nadal has won six of the last seven and by their epic standards, Monday’s victory was a sprint at 3 hours 21 minutes. It was also a huge payday, guaranteeing Nadal $2.6 million in prize money and an additional $1 million for winning the US Open Series.
“Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible,” Djokovic said. “Whatever he achieved so far in his career is something that everybody should respect, no question about it. I was saying before, he’s definitely one of the best tennis players ever to play the game.”