AP Tennis Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- With the 55th and last swing on the longest of many long points in the U.S. Open final, Rafael Nadal pushed a backhand into the net to get broken by Novak Djokovic.
It could have been the beginning of the end for many players.
Not for Nadal, who is as resilient as they come. A year after watching the Flushing Meadows title match on TV at home with a bad left knee, he is fit as can be -- and, just maybe, better than ever.
The No. 2-ranked Nadal emerged with his 13th Grand Slam title, and second at the U.S. Open, by withstanding No. 1 Djokovic's similar brand of hustle-to-every-ball style and pulling away Monday to a tense, taut 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory.
"This season is probably the most emotional one in my career. I felt that I did everything right to have my chance here," said Nadal, who dropped to the court and rolled over on his stomach, crying, after the last point. "I have to be almost perfect to win."
Hard to believe this is the same Nadal who missed seven months with a knee injury, but was able to cover every inch of the court, tracking down shot after shot from Djokovic.
Hard to believe this is the guy who used to be considered a clay-court specialist, but is 22-0 on hard courts in 2013.
"I never thought something like this could happen," Nadal said. "I feel very lucky about what happened since I came (back). It's true that I worked, but even like this you need luck to be where I am today."
He and Djokovic started in sunlight and finished at night, a 3-hour, 21-minute miniseries of cliffhangers and plot twists with a pair of protagonists who inspired standing ovations in the middle of games.
There was no quit in either of them, during points that lasted 15, 25, even more than 50 strokes. Those rallies went so long, rarely over when they appeared to be, and spectators often shouted out during the course of play, prompting Nadal to complain to the chair umpire.
"It's what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit," Djokovic said. "That's the beauty of our matches and our rivalry, I guess, in the end."
This was their 37th match against each other, the most between any two men in the Open era, and Nadal has won 22. It also was their third head-to-head U.S. Open final in the last four years. Nadal beat Djokovic for the 2010 title, and Djokovic won their rematch in 2011.
They know each other's games so well, but in the end, it was Nadal who was superior.
"He was too good. He definitely deserved to win this match today and this trophy," Djokovic said. "Obviously disappointing to lose a match like this."
Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in January, will hold onto his No. 1 ranking for the time being. But it's clear to everyone who the top player in tennis is at the moment.
Nadal is 60-3 in 2013 with 10 titles, including at the French Open, which made him the first man with at least one Grand Slam trophy in nine consecutive seasons. The 27-year-old Spaniard's total of 13 major championships ranks third in the history of men's tennis, behind only Roger Federer's 17 and Pete Sampras' 14.
Nadal has won a record eight titles at the French Open, two each at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and one at the Australian Open.
"Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible," said Djokovic, who owns six himself. "Whatever he achieved so far in his career, everybody should respect, no question about it."
Nadal no longer wears the strips of white tape he once used to bolster his left knee, and the way he covered the court against Djokovic -- switching from defense to offense in a blink -- proved that while he says he still feels pain in that leg, he definitely does not have problems moving around.
"The hardest part is the pain, always," Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, told The Associated Press. "You have pain, and you play. But the problem is you never know if you can run so fast, like before, or if you can play against the best players. From one day to (the next), it's difficult, always."
Nadal sure has managed to hide it well. He improved to 8-3 against Djokovic in Grand Slam matches, including a thriller of a semifinal at the French Open, which Nadal won 9-7 in the fifth set after trailing.