When an emotional Rafael Nadal collapsed to the blue cement surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium after securing a 13th Grand Slam crown, he could have been sobbing for his lost years.
On the other side of the net, vanquished opponent Novak Djokovic was facing the harsher reality of lost opportunities.
Nadal’s second US Open title took him to within four of Roger Federer’s record of 17 Grand Slam crowns and just one shy of Pete Sampras’ 14.
The Spaniard, with 60 career titles under his belt and more than US$60 million giving his country’s recession-hit banking system a steady drip of financial confidence, took his record in Grand Slam finals to 13 wins against five losses.
World No. 1 Djokovic has celebrated six Grand Slam final successes, but also tasted six defeats.
For Nadal, the lost years meant tournaments missed when his brittle knees conspired against him and his career.
The 27-year-old has been forced to skip five majors — Wimbledon 2004, the 2006 Australian Open, Wimbledon again in 2009, last year’s US Open as well as this year’s Australian Open.
The short two-week gap between the French Open, which he has won a record eight times, and Wimbledon has also been a factor in his stop-start assault on the majors.
Defeats in the first round in London this year and the second round last year would most likely have been avoided had the turnaround from Paris to the All England Club not been so tight.
However, he still retains a healthy credit column.
He has 13 majors at the age of 27, just like Federer, who is now 32, had achieved.
“I never thought something like this could happen, so excited to be back on tour trying to be competitive. I never thought about competing for all what I competed for this year,” said Nadal, who returned to the tour after a seven-month injury absence.
Djokovic, who will turn 27 next year, remains stuck on six majors, four of which have come in Australia.
“Thirteen Grand Slams for a guy who is 27 years old is incredible,” Djokovic said in praise of Nadal.
“What he achieved so far in his career is something that everybody should respect, no question about it. He’s definitely one of the best players ever,” he added.
Nadal completed a career Grand Slam when he captured the 2010 US Open title — he was only 24 at the time.
In the recent era, Andre Agassi was 29 when he claimed a career sweep, while Sampras never solved the riddles of Paris’ red brick dust.
Federer completed his career Grand Slam in 2009 at the French Open, but that took him until he was 28; it was also the year that Nadal suffered his one and only career defeat at Roland Garros.
Djokovic, meanwhile, has suffered nothing but frustration in Paris.
By the time the French Open rolled around in 2011, he was on a 41-match winning streak which was ended in the semi-finals by Federer.
That defeat shattered what would have been a rare calendar Grand Slam, something only two players have ever achieved — Donald Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969).
“Nadal is to me the greatest player that ever lived,” John McEnroe said. “If you look at his record against Murray, Federer and Djokovic, it’s way better than that. He won the Olympics. He’s got Davis Cups, which Roger doesn’t have.”
“I have always said Roger Federer to me was the greatest player that ever lived, certainly the most beautiful player, but I’m going to tell you right here and now there’s a definite argument, I’m starting to lean toward Rafa,” McEnroe added.
Nadal has a winning record against all of his rivals.
He is 21-10 against Federer, 22-15 when facing Djokovic and 13-5 against world No. 3 Andy Murray.
In Grand Slam play, he has lost just 23 times, while Djokovic has shipped 30 defeats and Federer 40, although the 32-year-old Swiss has played many more times.
If Nadal’s knees remain sturdy, it looks likely that McEnroe’s confidence in the Spaniard’s place in the sport’s history will be fully justified.