NEW YORK — Rafael Nadal does share an era with Roger Federer, but this season and this year's U.S. Open now belong exclusively to him.
There were times when it seemed highly unlikely that Nadal would ever hold up the trophy in New York.
The courts were too quick for his elaborate forehand backswing. The ball bounced too low. The lack of an overwhelming serve made it tough to win enough easy points. The combined weight of the early season, with all those inevitable clay-court victories, was too much for his hard-charging style to bear.
But Nadal, with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Novak Djokovic in Monday night's rain-interrupted Open final, has proved that there are no limits to his range or appetite.
Playing against an opponent who had beaten him in their past three matches, all on hardcourts, the No. 1-seeded Nadal prevailed in 3 hours, 43 minutes in the face of inspired resistance to become, at age 24, the youngest man in the Open era to complete a career Grand Slam.
"I think for the first time in my career I played a very, very good match in this tournament," Nadal said. "That's my feeling. I played my best match in the U.S. Open out there at the most important moment."
Nadal, a left-handed ubercompetitor from Spain, wore down the third-seeded Djokovic with his phenomenal defense, consistent returns and improved serve, particularly the sliced serve to the ad court that forced Djokovic to release the second hand from his backhand and lunge in desperation on multiple occasions.
It was not Nadal's finest performance (he had not lost a set on his way to the final). Against Djokovic, he struggled with his timing at times and squandered 20 break points.
But when necessary, he called on a higher gear than Djokovic, finding a sharper angle with his backhand, tracking down a seemingly unreachable drop shot and, above all, forcing Djokovic to keep running and lunging and feeling obliged to come up with something extra.
After an extra day's rest because rain Sunday forced the final to be delayed, Nadal looked fresher and faster in the final two sets Monday. And when Djokovic's last forehand had sailed wide, Nadal dropped to the blue court, covered his head with his hands then jogged toward the net and embraced his 23-year-old opponent.
Nadal has followed his own path from the beginning, with his uncle and coach Toni Nadal serving as his guide. He stayed at home to train on his beloved island of Majorca instead of joining other aspiring Spanish stars on the Spanish mainland. Contrary to his compatriots who played down Wimbledon, he declared that he loved playing on grass and wanted to win there one day.
Now he has won everywhere that matters most in the game that he once chose over soccer. At 24, he is three years younger than Federer was when he rounded out his Grand Slam collection at last year's French Open.
"Right now, he's the best player in the world, and he absolutely deserves this title," Djokovic said.
Though Nadal has now won nine Grand Slam singles titles to Federer's 16, a growing number in the game believe Nadal will challenge Federer's numbers.
"I think this victory says that we should stop talking about Federer being the greatest player of all time," said Mats Wilander, a former U.S. Open champion. "I truly believe that. We can say that Roger is, but there's no point in doing that until Nadal is done. It's already unfair to me to say Roger is because Rafa is beating him all the time on every surface and in the Slam finals."
Nadal holds a 14-7 career edge over Federer and a 5-2 edge in Grand Slam finals.
"He took it away," Djokovic said, "and he never gave me a chance to go back.
"He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever. I think he's playing the best tennis that I've ever seen him play on hard courts. He has improved his serve drastically. And, of course, his baseline is as good as ever."
Nadal stretched his Grand Slam winning streak to 21 matches. Now Nadal heads to the Australian Open in January with a chance to claim a Rafa Slam of four consecutive major championships.
Nadal is the first left-hander to win the U.S. Open since John McEnroe in 1984.
"Nadal … is just proving each day, each year, that he's getting better," Djokovic said. "He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, to be the biggest ever."
women's doubles: Resuming play three points from defeat, Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova saved a match point, forced a third-set tiebreaker and won the U.S. Open women's doubles title. They beat second-seeded Liezel Huber and Nadia Petrova 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) in a match suspended Sunday because of rain.
serena practicing: Serena Williams is back practicing after right foot surgery that kept her out of the U.S. Open. Her return to competition is unclear, but she plans to play for the United States in the Fed Cup final against Italy in November. She was moving comfortably in tall black boots Monday. "I'm in a different boot, not that hideous (walking) boot," Williams said.
Men's career Grand Slams
Roger Federer, 16: Australian (2004, 2006-07, 2010), French (2009), Wimbledon (2003-07, 2009), U.S. Open (2004-08)
Roy EmersoN, 12: Australian (1961, 1963-67), French (1963, 1968), Wimbledon (1964-65), U.S. (1961, 1964)
Rod Laver, 11: Australian (1960, 1962, 1969), French (1962, 1969), Wimbledon (1961-62, 1968-69), U.S. (1962, 1969)
Rafael Nadal, 9: Australian (2009), French (2005-08, 2010), Wimbledon (2008, 2010), U.S. (2010)
Andre Agassi, 8: Australian (1995, 2000-01, 2003), French (1999), Wimbledon (1992), U.S. (1994, 1999)
Fred Perry, 8: Australian (1934), French (1935), Wimbledon (1934-36), U.S. (1933-34, 1936)
Don Budge, 6: Australian (1938), French (1938), Wimbledon (1937-38), U.S. (1937-38)