The game that crushed Rafael Nadal

NEW YORK -- There were 38 games in Monday's U.S. Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But only one of them -- the third game of the second set -- defined the ongoing battle between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players.

For the second straight set, Nadal ran off to a 2-0 lead. He had subsequently lost the remaining six games of the first set, but he could not afford to be broken here. Nadal trailed love-30 and 30-40, but forced two Djokovic forehand errors and brought it to deuce -- for the first of eight times, as it turned out.

It was an extremely high level of tennis, featuring some furious rallies that used all of the court, one of them requiring 27 strokes. Toward the end, both players looked exhausted.

On the 21st point, Nadal -- sweat steadily dripping off his nose -- went for a little too much on a second serve and double-faulted. He challenged the call, perhaps to catch his breath. Replays showed it was long by a few millimeters.

Nadal is one of the game's great gentlemen, but for the second time he exchanged heated words in Spanish with chair umpire Carlos Ramos. Finally, on the sixth break opportunity for Djokovic, Rafa was looking at a very makeable overhead to conclude another fantastic over-and-back, up-and-down point. Somehow, Nadal blew the smash.

A weary Djokovic did not exult; he spread out his arms and -- true feelings seemingly revealed at this emotional moment -- raised the index finger of his right hand.

After the 17-minute session, the Serb went on to win four straight games and, eventually, the second set.

Djokovic went on to win the epic match, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 and take his first U.S. Open title.

Even in the heat of that third-set moment, it seemed clear: That game crushed Nadal's soul.

Afterward, Nadal was recounting his numerous chances in the final -- the 2-0 start he enjoyed in the first and second sets, the momentum he carried from the third into the fourth -- when he stopped and grimaced.

"That very, very long game," he said. "I had a mistake with the smash. That's tennis."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.