John McEnroe described it as the greatest season in tennis history. There are still two Masters Series tournaments, the end-of-season Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London and the concluding stages of the Davis Cup to be played, but it would be hard to disagree with the verdict McEnroe delivered here at the end of the US Open.
The Grand Slam season could not have had a better finale as Novak Djokovic, the player of the year by a country mile, beat Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 in a final of stunning quality that lasted four hours and 10 minutes. There have been finals of more drama, finals with more twists and turns, finals in which the winner has crushed his opponent more emphatically, but surely no two players have ever struck the ball with more consistent power or showed such stunning athleticism as Djokovic and Nadal did here on Monday night.
Many of the rallies – several of them 20 strokes or more – had the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium gasping in near disbelief as both men retrieved balls from seemingly impossible positions and turned heroic defence into thrilling attack.
At the end of it, for the 10th time in tournaments this year, the crowd was left to acclaim Djokovic as a quite extraordinary champion.
It has been a truly astonishing year for the 24-year-old Serb. He has won 64 of the 66 matches he has played – his only defeats have been against Roger Federer in the French Open semi-finals and against Andy Murray in the final of the Cincinnati Masters, when he retired with a sore shoulder – and won three Grand Slam titles. He has now beaten Nadal, his predecessor as world No 1 and the winner of the season's other Grand Slam crown at the French Open, in six finals in succession this year.
While Don Budge (in 1938) and Rod Laver (in 1962 and 1969) won all four Grand Slam titles in a single season, Djokovic has achieved his success in an era which until this year had been dominated by two of the greatest players of all time in Nadal and Federer.
The Serb traces the start of his extraordinary run back to last year's US Open, when he saved two match points against Federer in the semi-finals before losing to Nadal. "At this level you need those tough matches against the top guys in order to get confidence, to get self-belief on the court that you can really win majors and win the big matches," Djokovic said.
"I guess it just clicked in my head. I think that throughout the last couple of years I haven't changed my game in any major way. Most of the strokes are the same that they were in the last two or three years.
"It's just that I'm now hitting the shots that I maybe wasn't hitting in the last two or three years. I'm going for it, I'm more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semi-finals and finals of major events, especially when I'm playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger.
"In the last couple of years, that wasn't the case. I was always trying to wait for their mistakes and not really having the positive attitude and believing that I can win. This has changed and the US Open 2010 was definitely one of the turning points in my career."
Djokovic believes another key to his success has been playing to a more sensible schedule. "I know when to have a little break, when to rest my body, when to get ready and prepare," he said.
"The bottom line is that the most important thing is to win Grand Slams, because they are the four most important tournaments in our sport. This is where you want to win. Right now I feel drained emotionally, physically and mentally, but it's normal after such a long year and so many matches. But I have this trophy here and this is what I was fighting for."
In the past there were doubts about Djokovic's fitness and stamina, but changing to a gluten-free diet has been a crucial factor in his improved physical condition. Asked what he had eaten going into the final and what he would eat afterwards, Djokovic replied: "I'll give you a simple answer. Last night I didn't have any gluten and tonight I will have a bunch of gluten – and alcohol."
Djokovic said that achieving the career Grand Slam by adding a French Open title to his successes at Wimbledon and the US and Australian Opens was his next big goal.
"There are still a lot of things to prove, to myself and to the tennis world. I still want to win many more major events. Love for the sport keeps me going and as long as that feeling of winning on the court stays with me, I will keep fighting for more trophies. It would be unbelievable to be able to complete the Grand Slam, to win the French Open. It's something that is definitely an ambition, but it's going to take time."
Nadal, who believes that the major changes in Djokovic this year have been his confidence and his cutting down on mistakes, said he had been happy with his season, particularly as he had added another French Open title to his Grand Slam collection.
"I've lost six finals, but I was there," Nadal said. "I was in the final of Wimbledon and the final of the US Open. I fought for both of them, especially this one. I'll go back to Spain more happy today than after the Wimbledon final, because after here I think I am on the right way to try to beat Novak. After Wimbledon I didn't feel that.
"He's always done well on these kind of surfaces. I always had big trouble beating him here on these surfaces in the past, but I will go back home knowing that I am on the right track. I like to fight and I want to enjoy this battle against him. Six straight losses are painful, for sure, but I'm going to work every day until that changes."
Nadal led 2-0 in both the first two sets, only to be pegged back as Djokovic mercilessly attacked the Spaniard's misfiring serve. Djokovic broke serve a remarkable 11 times in the match, while Nadal did so on six occasions.
In the early stages, Nadal came off second best in slugging contests from the back of the court. While the Spaniard was generally pegged back behind the baseline, Djokovic kept forcing his way forward. However, Nadal came back into the match by playing with more slice, varying the pace of his shots and hitting the ball more down the middle of the court.
Nadal came back from a break down three times in the third set, on the third occasion when Djokovic served for the match at 6-5. The Spaniard made one last Herculean effort and forced a tie-break, which he won 7-3.
When Djokovic took a medical time-out for treatment to his aching back and ribs early in the fourth set it seemed that the momentum might have swung decisively Nadal's way, but the Spaniard admitted afterwards that he was exhausted by that stage. Djokovic, who was also feeling cramp in his legs, sensed the need to keep the points as short as possible. He went for his shots more than ever and won the fourth set more easily than he could have imagined possible.
Djokovic paid tribute to Nadal. "He never gives up," the Serb said. "You could see that today. Two sets and a break down and serving for the match and he's coming back. That's why he's a great champion."
Djokovic's annus mirabilis
Australian Open beat Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in final
Dubai beat Roger Federer 6-3, 6-3 in final
Indian Wells Masters beat Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in final
Miami Masters beat Rafael Nadal 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 in final
Belgrade beat Feliciano Lopez 7-6, 6-2 in final
Madrid Masters beat Rafael Nadal 7-5, 6-4 in final
Rome Masters beat Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in final
French Open lost 6-7, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 to Roger Federer in semi-final
Wimbledon beat Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 in final
Montreal Masters beat Mardy Fish 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in final
Cincinnati Masters lost 4-6, 0-3 (retired hurt) to Andy Murray in final
US Open beat Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1 in final