NEW YORK - For a moment, Rafael Nadal was somewhere he never usually goes.
Deep into the third set of Monday's U.S. Open men's final, a heavy Novak Djokovic forehand pushed Nadal back behind the baseline, where he tripped over his own feet and tumbled, seemingly in slow-motion, to the ground.
In that instant, the fall seemed symbolic, a turning point. Nadal promptly faced triple-break point and the prospect of Djokovic taking a two-sets-to-one lead. Point by point, Nadal dug himself out of the hole. An ace - his only one in the match - got the game to deuce. Four points later, he had a most improbable hold. Six points after that, he'd broken Djokovic to take the third set, 6-4.
Nadal's body hunched over, and he pumped his fist. Vamos! he roared.
Turning point, indeed.
Nadal broke Djokovic twice in the fourth set and held on for a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win. It is the second U.S. Open win of Nadal's career, his 13th overall Grand Slam championship. Djokovic, too, is a previous U.S. Open champion.
As expected, the match felt more like a heavyweight fight than a tennis match. The two men had faced off 36 times before, each quite familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the other, each prepared for the grueling physical challenge that awaited Monday night. They didn't disappoint.
Rallies routinely lasted 10 or 20 shots. One - the first time Djokovic broke Nadal, in the second set - went 54 shots. It, rightfully, earned itself a standing ovation from the Arthur Ashe stadium crowd.
The match teetered back and forth, momentum changing ever-so-slightly and ever-so-frequently throughout the four sets. Nadal won the first set easily in 42 minutes, then watched Djokovic elevate his game to match him. In the second set, Djokovic relied on his best weapon - his return - to pressure Nadal, breaking the Spaniard twice in the process. Entering Monday's match, Nadal had been broken just once throughout the entire tournament.
Djokovic's combination of stellar defense and breathtaking groundstrokes earned him an early break in the third set and what appeared, briefly, to be control of the match. At the time of Nadal's fall, Djokovic was just a couple of points away from taking the set. Nadal snatched it from his grip, despite hitting just six winners the entire set, to Djokovic's 17.