The rankings do not yet reflect it, but there can be no doubt which man is playing the finest tennis in the world.
On his last visit to American hardcourts, in March, Novak Djokovic looked like a man in a dinghy without a motor or a sail, losing his opening-round matches in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami.
But that confounding trip, part of a malaise that lasted nearly two years, is now part of the past.
After returning to the fore by winning Wimbledon in July, he returned to dominance by winning the United States Open for the third time on Sunday night.
His 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Juan Martín del Potro under a closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium was a brilliant display of Djokovic’s suffocating skill set.
It was all there: the precision serving, the fast-twitch returns, the baseline consistency under greatest pressure, and, above all, the full-stretch defense that can buckle the knees and spirit of even a player as resilient as del Potro.
“He was back at his best,” said Marian Vajda, Djokovic’s coach, who helped him back to that level after he rejoined his team in April, and helped to retool his serve and restore his confidence.
Djokovic has routinely gone deep at the Open, but has often been stopped just short of the biggest prize. He is 3-5 in Open finals and is tied with the former American star Pete Sampras for third on the career list with 14 Grand Slam singles title.
Roger Federer has 20. Rafael Nadal has 17. One more Grand Slam victory, which hardly seems out of the question at next year’s Australian Open in light of Djokovic’s affinity for hardcourts in Melbourne, and the top three players from this golden era of men’s tennis will hold the top three spots on that career list.
“I mean, the 14 is a number,” Vajda said, looking up at the ceiling of the players’ lounge as if he were admiring the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. “Years ago, I would say Rafa and Roger went too far from him, too ahead of him with the Grand Slams and now I have the feeling he catches up with them.”
For now, he has caught Sampras, a big server from California with the fabulous running forehand. Sampras has more in common with Federer stylistically than with Djokovic and his two-handed backhand and ability to turn defense into offense.
“Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game,” Djokovic said. “He was my childhood idol. He was someone I was looking up to. The first actual thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was his first or second Wimbledon championship. That inspired me to start playing tennis. There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him.”
To achieve that, he had to deny a player who had endured a long wait to be back on this stage. The last time del Potro played the final in New York, Ashe Stadium did not have a roof and Barack Obama was in the first year of his presidency.
That was in September 2009, and del Potro swept past Nadal in the semifinals and rallied to beat Federer in the final.
The tennis world was at his big feet and forehand. He was just 20. But four wrist operations stopped his rise and left him contemplating retirement in 2015. He is in the midst of a fine season and was a clear crowd favorite as the Argentine fans and others familiar with his back story threw their support behind him from the start.
But Djokovic is accustomed to playing mental tricks in Ashe Stadium. When he defeated Federer in the Open final in 2015, he faced a particularly hostile crowd but imagined that they were chanting his name instead of Federer’s.
This time, he transformed the Argentine fans’ cheers for del Potro.
“My nickname is Nolé,” Djokovic said. “When they shout ‘Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé,’ that’s what I hear. I actually make myself hear that. No word of a lie. I really do.”
But there was no masking del Potro’s pain at losing his first Grand Slam final in nine years. He had a few chances to turn this match in his favor, but he failed to take advantage, including when he lost a service game in the first set after going ahead by 40-0.
He sobbed in the locker room after the defeat, and he was crying again an hour later, with a group of his friends from his home city of Tandil, Argentina, gathered around him in a tight circle in the player garden.
“I’m very sad for being a loser today,” del Potro said. “But Novak deserved to take the trophy. He played a great match, a very smart game. I had my opportunities during the second and third set. But I was playing almost to the limit all the time, looking for winners with my forehand, backhands. And I couldn’t make it because Novak was there every time.”
It is difficult, even for a player as powerful as del Potro, to knock down a wall, which is what Djokovic often resembled on the gritty blue surface. Then again, that metaphor is flawed because walls don’t run, lunge, stretch or read your mind. Djokovic seemed to be everywhere at times, extending rallies or finishing them off with winners, often in the forecourt.
He pushed forward often, winning 28 of 37 points at net. But the best duel of the night was Djokovic’s world-class defense against del Potro’s world-class forehand, which remains one of the game’s ultimate crowd pleasers.
The actress Meryl Streep was not acting when she put her hands to her face, looking like something Edvard Munch might have painted, after one particularly thunderous del Potro winner.
But more often than not, Djokovic managed to retrieve del Potro’s signature shot and maintain the suspense and the frustration. He also put 80 percent of his returns in play and led the entire Open field by putting 82 percent in play in the tournament.
Djokovic has won five straight matches against del Potro, the last four of those victories coming in straight sets. He is 15-4 against him over all.
This 3-hour-16-minute meeting, their first in a Grand Slam final, turned for good in the second-set tiebreaker, when Djokovic broke a 4-4 deadlock by winning the final three points, completing a set that lasted 95 minutes.
The last point of that tiebreaker was emblematic: Del Potro tried to open up the court with his forehand, but Djokovic read the shot beautifully and counterpunched it crosscourt. Del Potro, who at 6-foot-6 takes time to change direction, reached the ball but hit the running forehand into the net.
It takes great energy and resilience to play Djokovic’s style of tennis, but his eyes were often wide amid the tussle, enjoying the process again after the burnout and injuries that knocked him off the top rung in men’s tennis after he last reached the final here in 2016.
This year, he had surgery to repair a right elbow problem in early February after playing the Australian Open with a sheath on his right arm and an abbreviated service motion.
But the sheath is long gone, along with his slump.
“If you told me in February this year when I got the surgery that I’ll win Wimbledon, U.S. Open, and Cincinnati, would be hard to believe.” Djokovic said. “But at the same time there was always part of me that imagined and believed and hoped that I can get back on the desired level of tennis very soon.”
It took time to get there. He lost early in tournaments repeatedly and then crashed out of the French Open in the quarterfinals against the unseeded Italian Marco Cecchinato. He looked dazed and frustrated in a memorably terse postmatch news conference.
“I was very, very disappointed with my performance that day,” he said.
He and his wife, Jelena, then headed south from Paris to Provence and hiked Mount Sainte-Victoire, which proved as inspirational to him as it was to the painter Cézanne. The view from the summit turned out to be the path toward a different summit.
“We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation,” Djokovic said. He said he learned patience as well — never his strong suit.
Vajda has noticed a change, too. He sees Djokovic playing like a champion again. “It’s like you undust all the trophies on the shelf, and it comes out of him,” Vajda said.
But he also senses more humility after his extended slump.
“Life showed me that it takes time for good things,” Djokovic said. “It takes time to really build them, for things to fall into place, so you can center yourself, balance yourself and thrive. The last two months have been terrific.”
He will be back at No. 3 in the rankings on Monday, and though Nadal will still be No. 1 and Federer No. 2, there is no doubt about which player is atop the heap right here, right now. And though Streep channeled Munch after a del Potro forehand, her look would also be appropriate for a men’s tennis player looking at a rejuvenated Djokovic.
“Novak has everything,” del Potro said, “to make records in this sport.”