NEW YORK Early Monday afternoon at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Rafael Nadal's father, Sebastian, and other members of the Nadal clan wandered through the U.S. Open Court of Champions snapping photographs of the plaques honoring past inductees.
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 U.S. Open.
"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 would suggest, gave Nadal a second U.S. 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 hardcourts this season.
He is now 23-0, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Opens and one Australian Open. He also holds a winning record over all 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 U.S. 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."
Nadal has rarely played better than he did in the opening set, breaking Djokovic twice and striking the ball with consistent venom and precision. When it ended after 42 minutes, Nadal said he went to his chair and thought that the match was beginning "now" because he believed there was no chance of him sustaining that level and that edge for two more sets in a row.
That proved true, as Djokovic began taking greater risks with his forehand in the second set and pushing Nadal back from the baseline to a position more familiar to those who watched Nadal play on quick hardcourts in the early years of his career.
Djokovic finally broke Nadal's serve in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead, although it required him to win a 54-shot rally that was fast and dazzling enough to appear computer-animated to those watching it on a screen.
"It's what we do when play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit," Djokovic said.
Rafael Nadal, above, takes over sole possession of third place.
Roger Federer 17
Pete Sampras 14
Rafael Nadal 13
Roy Emerson 12
Bjorn Borg 11
Rod Laver 11
Bill Tilden 10
The Associated Press