NEW YORK — Forecasting nobility in sports is tougher than predicting the weather, which mercifully held, despite a slight chance of rain, for the U.S. Open final Monday between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
In 2010, after Nadal defeated Djokovic in four sets in Queens to complete a career Grand Slam, a debate raged about whether he or Roger Federer deserved to lead the greatest-player-of-all-time conversation.
A year later, the talk has turned like pages in a history book to a discussion of whether Djokovic is having the all-time greatest season. The top-ranked Djokovic might have settled that debate with a 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3-7), 6-1 dethroning of Nadal.
Djokovic is 64-2 this year, with three majors (four overall).
"I've had an amazing year," he said, "and it keeps going."
"What you did this year is probably impossible to repeat," Nadal told him. "So well done."
The match lasted 4:10 and featured one 17-minute game, a few 30-stroke rallies and numerous can-you-top-this shotmaking.
Before the fourth set, Djokovic was face-down on the court receiving medical treatment for a strained muscle. After striking the last of his 20 forehand winners on his first championship point, Djokovic ended up on his back, howling at the full moon.
"Djokovic didn't arrive this year, no?" said Nadal, who owns 10 major titles. "For me it is a little bit strange about the people here talking about Djokovic, about his big new improvement. Djokovic was here before, no? Djokovic played fantastic before. He had fantastic potential to be where he is today."
Of all the improvements in Djokovic's game — he cites his serve, fitness and confidence — none served him better Monday than his unflappability. Djokovic used to be easily taken out of his game. In 2008, he played American Andy Roddick in an Open quarterfinal and the partisan crowd burrowed under his skin.
On Monday, some fans were calling balls "out" during points, and Djokovic did not come unglued. He kept his composure in the third set when he was down 3-4 and 30-40 on his serve and faulted on his first attempt. Fans who were rooting for a longer match responded with lusty cheers, but Djokovic remained stone-faced.
He left it to chair umpire Carlos Ramos to say something to the fans and then put his second serve into play and hit a backhand winner on the 30th stroke on his way to a hold.
Djokovic had a strong return game. He repeatedly sent serves back at Nadal's feet, forcing errors or taking control of the point, accumulating 26 break points and converting 11.
In the first two sets, Nadal jumped to 2-0 leads only to have Djokovic come storming back with penetrating groundstrokes. He finished with 55 winners and 51 unforced errors to put an exclamation point on a singular Grand Slam season.
"The bottom line is that that's the whole point — to win Grand Slams — because these are the tournaments most important and most valuable in our sport," Djokovic said. "Right now I feel drained emotionally and physically and mentally."
Then, motioning at the silver chalice that forever will carry his engraved name, Djokovic added: "But I have this trophy here, and this is what I was fighting for."