NEW YORK — America had barely begun dinner late Monday afternoon when John McEnroe announced from his CBS booth that, "This is a huge match for our sport."
It was a match that would determine our national tennis championship. And, yes, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would play a U.S. Open men's final that would define the resurgent Nadal as player of the year for 2013.
Yet more than that, it was a match that would continue to shape one of the sport's great rivalries, a rivalry that holds historical promise to be remembered as the greatest ever.
Rafa vs. Nole.
The Spaniard from the Balearic Islands vs. the Serb raised in war-torn Belgrade.
May they play on forever.
And damn if they didn't that hot January night in Melbourne in 2012 when Djokovic won the Australian Open in an epic five-set match. That one took 5 hours, 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final in history. When it was over, chairs had to be brought out during the trophy presentation so the two didn't collapse.
Some called it the greatest match ever played. Certainly it stood as a marathon of the competitive spirit, one that pushed both men to pain and pleasure they never knew possible.
So when the players took the court Monday, 25,000 fans jammed into Arthur Ashe Stadium expecting terrific tennis and hoped for epic. And they got terrific in long stretches, in rallies that lasted longer than most normal humans could hold their breath. They got it until Djokovic couldn't finish off the third set and, with his spirit broken, Nadal finished him off 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
And when it had ended, it would kick off another debate. When Nadal is finished, will he be remembered as the greatest tennis player ever? A year ago, this did not seem possible. He had Joe Namath knees. He would be cut down in his most handsome prime. He missed the London Olympics. He watched the 2012 U.S. Open from home. He missed the 2013 Australian Open. His ranking fell to fifth, lowest in nearly a decade. Nadal slipped back on the clay courts of South American in February and by June, the "King of Clay" would return for his eighth French Open title. Yet there he was at Wimbledon, losing in the first round to 135th ranked Steve Darcis.
Well, as he fell to the court, overwhelmed by joy on this New York night following his second U.S. Open title, Nadal's knees not only weren't wrapped. They were moving like they had when he was 18. And the rest of Rafa? Unbeatable.
"Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible," said Djokovic, who has six at 26. "He's definitely one of the best ever to play the game. And he still has a lot of years to play."
This would their 37th meeting, the most of any players in the Open era. Nadal has won 22, Djokovic 15. Djokovic has won 11 of the 18 on hard court. Nadal has won eight of 11 in Grand Slams. Djokovic has won three of the six Grand Slam finals.
Nadal won a memorable semifinal against Djokovic at the French Open this past spring. He let a lead slip away in the fourth set only to rally to win the fifth, 9-7. In a vital moment, Djokovic lost a point when he hit the net. That one took 4 hours, 37 minutes. They had played a 4:10 minute final at the U.S. Open in 2011, with Djokovic winning in four sets. The match Monday would end in 3:21, a blink of the eye compared to some of their battles.
After an uninspired start by Djokovic, the level of tennis grew more and more sublime. McEnroe said defense was being played that never before had been exhibited at any level. They had played so many points of more than 15 strokes that we lost count. One went 23. Another went 28. Most remarkable, Djokovic broke Nadal in the sixth game of the second set on a point that went for 54 shots.
"I felt like I used every drop of energy," Djokovic said.
It was like Pong, yet the two rivals were sprinting around like madmen. CBS figured Nadal covered more than 470 feet on the point, while Novak had covered more than 420. Both guys emptied their bag of shots. Nadal displayed every spin, every angle, ever shot length known to man. Djokovic, the greatest returner ever, finally buckled, betrayed by 53 unforced errors compared to Nadal's 20.
"Nobody brings my game to that limit like Novak," Nadal said.
There was one moment when Nadal's feet went out from under him, yet as he was falling to the court, he kept his eyes locked on the ball and still tried to get a shot off. Nobody tries harder than Rafa. Nobody. Djokovic is close.
He bounced back with a dominating second set. And it was Nadal who was in trouble, broken in the third. Djokovic looked poised to take control of the match. Later, he was triple-break point down. Somehow, someway, the Spaniard found a way to hold and essentially steal the third set.