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He was off the tour for about seven months, missing the London Olympics and U.S. Open last year, and the Australian Open this year.

“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.

These two also played the longest Grand Slam final in history, a nearly six-hour struggle that left both needing to sit in chairs during the ceremony after Djokovic’s victory at the 2012 Australian Open.

This time, when it ended with a forehand into the net by Djokovic, Nadal dropped to his back on the court, saluted by an Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that included the Queen of Spain.

Nadal was relentless from shot to shot, yes, and from point to point, too, but what might have been most impressive was the way he stayed steady when Djokovic recovered from a rough start and began asserting himself.

At the outset, Djokovic was his own worst enemy on many points, a touch or two off the mark. Nadal claimed 12 of the last 14 points in the first set, with Djokovic looking almost bored.

The world saw this sort of listless, lackluster Djokovic two months ago in the final at Wimbledon, where Nadal had exited a Grand Slam tournament in the opening round for the only time in his career. That time, Djokovic went through a difficult semifinal — at 4:43, the longest in Wimbledon history — and barely put up much resistance in a straight-set loss to Andy Murray two days later.

In New York, Djokovic was coming off another four-hour semifinal victory, and the key stat in the first set Monday was that he made 14 unforced errors, 10 more than Nadal.

There were no surprising or innovative tactics from Nadal. In the simplest of terms, he reached nearly every ball Djokovic delivered, and Nadal’s replies nearly never missed the intended spot, accented by his huge uppercut of a swing and loud grunts of “Aaaah!” By match’s end, Djokovic had made 53 unforced errors, Nadal only 20.

“Credit to my opponent. He was making me run,” said Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in January and will remain No. 1 in the rankings despite Monday’s loss. “I had my ups and downs.”

The Serb’s biggest ups came in the second set. Nadal was broken a grand total of once through his first six matches in the tournament — a string that reached 88 games by early in the final’s second set. But with Djokovic raising his level, and gaining control of more of the many extended exchanges, he broke Nadal three times in a row.

“When Novak plays @ that level,” Nadal said, “I’m not sure if (anybody can) stop him.”

The first came for a 4-2 lead in the second set, thanks to the crescendo of the longest point of these two weeks, which ended when Nadal’s backhand found the net on the 55th stroke. Djokovic used superb defense to elongate the point, tossing his body around to bail himself out repeatedly by blunting Nadal’s violent strokes. When the memorable point ended, Djokovic bellowed and raised both arms, and thousands of fans rose to their feet, chanting his nickname, “No-le! No-le!”

Now Djokovic was energized, and Nadal was suddenly in a tad of trouble.

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