Rafael Nadal was not quite ready to contemplate his place in tennis history.

It had been less than two hours since a gripping victory over Novak Djokovic earned Nadal his second US Open championship and 13th Grand Slam title overall.

So when a question came about the likelihood of catching up to the only men who have won more major trophies Roger Federer has 17, Pete Sampras has 14 Nadal simply smiled and replied - “Let me enjoy today.”

“Means a lot, this one,” Nadal said.

That’s because he watched last year’s US Open on TV from the sofa back home in Spain, sidelined by a left knee injury that forced him off the tour for about seven months.

Nadal knew he’d return to tennis. Less clear was whether he would ever return to an elite level.

It turns out, he might just be better than ever.

And when the last point was done on Monday, Nadal fell on his back, then rolled over onto his stomach and buried his face in his arms. The tears started flowing.

“It’s normal that I was crying. I came from a not-easy situation, a tough one,” Nadal said. “All the things ... happening to me are a surprise and are the result (of) the tough work after the low moments. So that makes the victories more emotional.”

By adding two major titles this season, at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, Nadal became the first man with at least one in nine consecutive years.

Even Federer did not do that.

“I mean, whatever he achieved so far in his career is something that everybody should respect, no question about it,” Djokovic said about Nadal.

“He’s definitely one of the best tennis players ever to play the game, I mean, looking at his achievements and his age, at this moment,” he said. “He still has a lot of years to play.”

“What he is doing on hard courts is unbelievable for us,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach.

Not bad for a guy people used to think could not succeed on that speedy surface because of its wear and tear on his body. He plays more aggressively now, moving closer to or even inside the baseline and looking to end points sooner when possible.

It didn’t always happen that way against Djokovic, however.

They started in sunlight and finished at night, a 3-hour, 21-minute miniseries of cliff-hangers and plot twists with a pair of protagonists, who inspired standing ovations in the middle of games.

“It’s what we do when we play against each other, always pushing each other to the limit,” Djokovic said.

More In: Tennis | Sport