Now owner of a career Grand Slam at age 24, champion at three consecutive major tournaments and nine overall, the No. 1-ranked Nadal is suddenly chasing something else: recognition as the greatest tennis player in history.
Approaching perfection for stretches -- the nfl jersey guy played more than 40 points in a row without making an unforced error -- Nadal beat Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in a match filled with fantastic shotmaking by both men and interrupted by a thunderstorm a day after it was postponed by rain.
"For the first time in my career, I played a very, very good match in this tournament," said Nadal, who never had been past the semifinals at Flushing Meadows. "That's my feeling, no? I played my best match in the U.S. Open at the most important moment."
Once seen as Roger Federer's nemesis, Rafael Nadal has made his own greatness quite clear -- and is more than halfway to Federer's career record of 16 Grand Slam titles. Nadal's total already is one more than Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi or Ivan Lendl won.
It's clear where Nadal stands on the matter. He said "talk about if I am better or worse than Roger is stupid, because the titles say he's much better than me."
Djokovic, understandably, had a different take on Nadal.
"He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever," said Djokovic, who lost the 2007 U.S. Open final to Federer, but upset him in Saturday's semifinals.
Nadal is a year younger than Federer was when he got to No. 9, and about 3½ years younger than Federer was when he completed his career Grand Slam at the 2009 French Open. Nadal is the seventh man in history with at least one title from each of tennis' four most important tournaments.
Bjorn Borg was the only other man to have nine major championships by 24.
"It's too far; 16, for me, is too far to think about right now," Nadal said, with his typical humility. "My goal, all my life, was the same: keep improving."
He takes that task seriously. When he started on tour his forehand was feared, his backhand wasn't, so he worked on that. Then he got better at volleying. He says he decided a couple of days before the start of the U.S. Open to tweak the way he holds his racket to serve.
That added zip to his serves, now regularly faster than 130 mph, which helps him earn some easy points -- important given the way he hustles so much and hits so hard, those booming forehands looking like uppercuts. He won 106 of 111 service games in the tournament, a key reason he finally came through in New York.
Everyone, even Nadal himself, used to try to explain why he kept leaving the U.S. Open without a trophy, why it was the only Grand Slam tournament he hadn't conquered.
"The hard court," he said, "always was the most difficult surface ... for me."
Here's how the thinking went: His grinding style exhausts him. The wind plays havoc with his spin-lathered strokes. The courts are too hard and too fast. The balls are too soft. And so on.
Seems sort of silly, huh?
"Now no one can say he can't win here," said Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach. "It's very important for us to know that Rafael has learned so much, because players said Rafa could never win on hard courts, because he played too much topspin [or] he's too physical. And now I believe there's not much that the nfl jersey players he plays against can argue with."