Here's What Led Rafa Nadal To His Second U.S. Open Title

The Rafa Nadal-Novak Djokovic men's final tonight was an endless highlight reel. We showed you that 54-shot rally earlier but let's show you another fantastic rally in what was an incredibly high quality tennis match. Djokovic grabbed the second set 6-3 and it looked like he had just enough headwind to take the third. Momentum was still on his side. John McEnroe and Mary Carillo seemed to agree that they were watching history—another one of the great matches in an era that is absolutely stocked with classic matches (Carillo mentioned that the Nadal-Djokovic 2012 Australian Open final and the Nadal-Djokovic French semi earlier this year were among the best matches she had ever seen). It was inevitable that this one would go the distance. Djokovic had a chance at a break at 4-all and couldn't convert and here's Djokovic, serving at 4-5 at 30-0, cruising to a hold to bring it 5-all. And this would ultimately change the momentum and the match:

Just look at that point and that standing ovation. That's what it was like all night. Rafa would go on to break Djokovic in that game, which gave him the set. It changed the whole match.

"I obviously could not recover after that loss," Djokovic said tonight.

Nadal said that the late break was "for sure" a turning point.

Djokovic had to get an early break up in the fourth and he had a chance. The crowd was decidedly in his favor throughout the match, probably the first final it has ever been this much in his favor (it's an odd thing how ambivalent New York is with Djokovic). And then Djokovic offered this, one of the most remarkable drop shots you'll ever see in the first game of the fourth set:

"What are we gonna see next?" McEnroe said, as Djokovic got a break point

Guess what. Not much. Nadal would win the game, and blitzed a dazed-looking Djokovic 6-1 in the final set. We've seen a lot of this in this U.S. Open. Stan Wawrinka took a 13-deuce, 20 minute game from Novak Djokovic on Saturday. Wawrinka would then lose the set and the match. Vika Azarenka raced back from two breaks down and a won a tight second set tiebreak to force a third set with Serena Williams. Azarenka lost the final set 6-1. They were spent, and Williams's and Nadal's utterly unrelenting dominance smothered resilient opponents.

Poor Djokovic. He still has no. 1 ranking but he still hasn't recovered the magic from his 2011 campaign and came up short in his two biggest battles against Nadal this year. He came into this Open on a wave of nice publicity from a big New Yorker profile and the release of a new memoir-cum-diet book, Serve To Win. (That book, like Djokovic's performance in the fourth set, turned out to be really flat. Three weeks after its release, it's sold just 1,500 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. A bomb.)

Nadal, meanwhile, has been dominant on hard courts this season. He hasn't lost a match on them this summer. This is a guy who's not supposed to play that well on hard courts! He's also a guy who, at least a few years ago, had an ambivalent relationship about this Grand Slam. In 2007, when he was asked to rattle off his favorite things about the U.S. Open (this is the easiest reporter bait in the world to talk about things like Arthur Ashe Stadium's atmosphere or how fun night matches are or celebrities), he mentioned a renovated men's locker room.

And yet he's made three straight U.S. Open men's finals—he missed 2012 due to an injury—and has won two of them. And he put on a display of tennis that may have been even more brilliant than his 2010 win.

And it all changed in a few minutes of the third set.

"It was a momentum change out there from Love 40, 4 All third set," said Djokovic. "He started playing really good. He served well few points. I didn't do anything I felt wrong in these few points. He didn't make a mistake. He served well. He came to the net. As I said, you know, all the credit to him. I had my momentum from midway second set to end of the third where I was supposed to, you know, use and realize the opportunities that were presented to me, and I didn't do it. I didn't deserve to win in the end."

"Very important point win the third set," said Nadal. "After all what happened in that third set, was an amazing victory of that set."