NEW YORK -- Rafa fell. This was at his shakiest moment Monday night, before another epic comeback would make it just a funny memory, before the tears and his admission that the year had been "the most emotional one in my career," before the queen of Spain sighed, "Bueno" at the sight of him and kissed both his cheeks. But you couldn't envision any of that, not then. Rafael Nadal fell, and suddenly all of it -- the knee, the career, the man -- seemed very fragile. It felt like disaster at hand.
This was late in the third set of the U.S. Open final, things knotted at a set apiece, 4-4, but tilting Novak Djokovic's way, fast. The world No. 1 had been gradually peeling back the layers on Nadal's game, denting him with haymaker groundstrokes and crafty pace, and now with Nadal serving all momentum had shifted the Serb's way. A classic drop-and-lob combo made it 0-15 and then, just as another marathon rally began to take shape, Djokovic's tricky forehand sent him backpedaling behind the baseline.
And then came a sight that you could spend years on the pro tour and never see. Nadal's footwork is legendary, a key to his remarkable career, yet now his right foot snagged on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium and he went down slow and fast, body parts flailing, bit by awkward bit. He looked like a man shoved hard onto a patch of ice.
"I never," Nadal said later, "thought I would fall down like this."
Still, there were two unusual things about his reaction: Instead of cushioning his fall, Nadal kept his eye on the ball and kept trying to swing. Over in Djokovic's box, his new coaching consultant, Wojtek Fibak, couldn't believe it.
"I was admiring him," said Fibak, the one-time mentor of Ivan Lendl. "Because he was falling in six or seven stages, and each stage he tried to hit the ball. He tried then ... and tried then ... and tried then ... and he still tried."
It's true. "Because until the last moment," Nadal said, "I thought that I will hit the ball."
And then he sprang back up and pointed for a towel, betraying not even a hint of embarrassment. If you're looking for a reason why Nadal, not Djokovic, is this year's U.S. Open champion, and the man who in essence if not yet fact is now considered No. 1, that will serve just fine. No matter the surface, the score or the state of his aching knees, the 27-year old Majorcan always thinks that he can hit the ball. His 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Djokovic on Monday, in the 37th edition of their now-record rivalry, was only the latest, most dramatic proof that almost nothing can keep Nadal from making his appointed rounds, especially the seven required to win a Grand Slam title.
Because even when the hole got even deeper, he kept hitting out. Djokovic still had Nadal on his heels then; another awkward point later, and he was facing 0-40 and the prospect that Djokovic would soon be serving for a 2-1 lead. And that's when Nadal reversed things, fast. A forehand winner here, a 125-mph ace there, an overhead smash to finish things off, and suddenly the 25,000 whipsawed fans at Ashe were all with him and Djokovic was looking dazed and there was Nadal throwing a fist at his box, holding onto a 5-4 lead. Djokovic responded by going up 30-0? Nadal put him back on his heels, ran down every ball to win the next three rallies -- and pulled off the crime of the tournament.
"How in the world did he win that set?" John McEnroe said on CBS. "That's stealing."
Worse. It was competitive murder.
"That's where I think Djoko lost his heart," Fibak said. "He lost his belief that he can beat Rafael on the day like this, in New York. Rafael just believes. His courage to produce the biggest shots, the most risky shots, like his forehand down the line? How many great cross-courts did Djokovic hit and then he has practically no time? How many times? Novak was in disbelief. He saw and couldn't believe: One, two, three, four, five, six, 10 times, the biggest points."
It's even more mind-boggling when you know that, during last year's Open, Nadal wasn't playing at all. Tennis has never seen a comeback like his: After missing seven months with a partially torn patella tendon in his left knee, Nadal returned in February rested and ready for a grind that, by summer's end, has traditionally left him spent or broken. His career winning percentage drops significantly -- 87 to 77 percent -- in matches played after the French-Wimbledon campaign; yet this year, to go along with his usual clay dominance, he won Indian Wells, Montreal and Cincinnati and carried a 21-0 record on hard courts into Monday's showdown.
"That's insane," seven-time Grand Slam winner Mats Wilander said. "It's unbelievable. But the important thing to understand with Rafa is that he's going to play himself into the ground -- again. And then he's going to come back and play himself into the ground again. He's always going to come back, and people are going to say the same thing every time."
That such toughness and resiliency off-court should dovetail with his playing style makes sense, of course, but it doesn't answer the mystery at the heart of Nadal's career. With 13 major titles, he now trails only Roger Federer and Pete Sampras on the all-time list; yet nothing in his background seems to answer for his relentless nature. He was raised in comfort and calm on an island in the Mediterranean, surrounded by loving family. Even the "intense" practice sessions meted out early by his coach and uncle, Toni, don't seem enough to create someone who, as Jimmy Connors famously put it, "plays like he's broke."
But, then, maybe his is too dark a read. It takes a special magic to play so bullying a style without being an actual bully, without leaving opponents unmanned, but Nadal has walked that line with admirable consistency. His on-court glower is a bit of a mask. He has few enemies.
"I'm in awe," Boris Becker said Monday. "I can't believe the attitude he brings to the court. He loves to be out there for three, four hours a day. He loves to be in difficult situations. He loves to be down and out. It comes from love. Amazing."
When Djokovic broke his serve for the first time -- with that astonishing, 54-stroke rally -- in Monday's second set, conventional wisdom had it that Nadal would be gutted. Instead, he weighed the fact that the wind would be at his back and that Nole would be winded, too. "It's my moment to be strong and I'm going to have the chance to break back. That's what I think in that moment," Nadal said. And then he broke Djokovic right back.
"I don't think anybody's played the game with the same kind of positive energy and emotion," Wilander said. "No one. Not even Lleyton Hewitt and not Jimmy Connors. Even though they are the great fighters, apart from Nadal, they're not as positive as Nadal. He is always positive. He's just a new breed. We've never seen anything like him."
Nadal's astonishing run this summer even prompted a vague hope that there might be some bracing, transitive effect on the man he'll be paired with forever, but the gap between Rafa and the 32-year-old, sixth-ranked Roger Federer has never seemed wider. All of Flushing Meadows seemed to sag early with Fed's straight-set collapse against Tommy Robredo; the deep want -- perhaps, even, the need -- for just one more Nadal-Federer showdown, in this year's quarterfinals, felt like a realization that the most important men's rivalry in history was, indeed, about to be history. And why not? Taken together, Nadal and Federer may well have been the best advertisement the actual game of tennis has ever had.
The hangover figures to last a while, most evident when Djokovic and Andy Murray engage in matches that produce set after set of long, counterpunching rallies. Contrast of styles is the holy grail of tennis fans -- hence the chorus of "ooohs" every time Stan Wawrinka or Richard Gasquet uncorks a one-handed backhand -- but even at the top the cupboard isn't all that bare. Nadal-Djokovic is now the longest rivalry -- 22-15, Rafa -- in the history of Open tennis. And after this year's meetings in Paris and New York, you don't hear any complaints.
"As long as Rafa's in there, I think the rivalries are very interesting," Wilander said. "As long as Rafa's in there, there's a contrast in style. It doesn't matter how you play, because no one plays like him. No one acts like him. No one fights like him; he's lefty, he spins it -- so anybody against Nadal is a good rivalry."
Still, Monday night was as much about Nadal's battle with his health and his own body, as it was about any opponent. During the first days of his rehabilitation, he never doubted that he would be able to play pro tennis again. He did doubt whether he'd ever contend again for major titles. "Win two Grand Slams in  is something that I never thought," Nadal said, and yet this year he has gone a career-best 60-3, won at Roland Garros and now in New York. When Djokovic's last ball flew into the net, it all finally hit him.
"Win against Novak again, win a final of the U.S. Open, have a chance to win three tournaments in a row now on hard [courts], it's normal that I was crying," Nadal said. "I came from another situation, a tough one. So all the things what's happening to me is a surprise, and it's the result of tough work, low moments. That makes the victory more emotional."
So when it was over, Rafa fell again. Twice. The first was the usual championship drop, but he instantly sprang back up to shake hands at net. Then, after dropping his racket, Nadal turned toward his box -- all the faces that have long kept him going -- and took a step on court. His legs gave. He collapsed flat onto his stomach, and lay under the lights and eyes of thousands, face covered, back trembling. Five, 10 seconds passed.
Then Nadal did what he always does, bad moment or good. He gathered himself, and got back on his feet. The winner's check was waiting. The queen, too.