The Spaniard earned his second major championship this season following his French Open triumph, sealing the 6-2 3-6 6-4 6-1 win when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net, sending Nadal down onto his back before rolling face down and sobbing in joy.
Nadal’s career total of 13 grand slam wins moves him one ahead of Australian Roy Emerson and into third on the all-time list behind Roger Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14).
Nadal, who won the 2010 U.S. Open in a final against Djokovic and then lost their finals rematch in 2011, improved his hard court record to a spotless 22-0 this year and his overall match record to a sensational 60-3.
“I never thought something like this could happen,” said the 27-year-old, who watched last year’s U.S. Open on television at home during a seven-month absence from the Tour due to a knee injury.
“I feel very lucky about what happened since I came back.”
Luck has accounted for a very small sliver of his remarkable season.
Since rejoining the Tour in February, Nadal has reached the finals in 12 of his 13 tournaments, winning 10 of them.
The Spaniard said beating Djokovic made this victory even more meaningful.
“Playing against Novak is a very special feeling,” he said at the trophy ceremony. “Probably no one brings my game to the level that Novak does.”
The match was a Tour-record setting 37th meeting between the two rivals, eclipsing the 36 clashes between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Nadal improved his lead in their series to 22-15.
The left-hander from Mallorca collected prize money of $2.6 million.
Nadal also pocketed an extra $1 million for having topped the standings in the U.S. Open run-up series of events, matching the $3.6 million haul of women’s winner Serena Williams.
“He was too good,” said Australian Open champion Djokovic. “He definitely deserved to win this match and this trophy.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to lose a match like this. But it’s an honor and privilege to be fighting for this trophy.”
The duo have staged some of the most memorable matches in recent seasons, with Djokovic winning a six-hour tilt in the 2012 Australian Open final, and Nadal claiming a classic semi-finals win this year at Roland Garros by 9-7 in the fifth set.
The quality of tennis rose throughout Monday’s match, translating into long rallies, brilliant defense and booming winners that had the centre court on their feet roaring their appreciation.
Among the host of celebrities and public figures watching the game, Queen Sofia of Spain was on hand to cheer on Nadal.
Nadal rewarded his fans with a meticulous opening set, winning with relative ease with a pair of service breaks.
The Spaniard, dashing around the court with speed and ease, handled the windy conditions easily, making just four unforced errors to 14 by Djokovic in the first set.
Djokovic turned up the intensity and outslugged Nadal to win the second set.
The top-seeded Serb claimed a rare service break off Nadal in the sixth game, taking a 4-2 lead by winning an exhausting 54-stroke rally when he handcuffed Nadal with a backhand to his feet.
Djokovic raised both arms above his head and shook them in triumph to cheers from the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd.
The Spaniard had held serve in 81 of 82 games on his way to the final.
But that feeling of exultation for Djokovic was short-lived as Nadal broke right back to bring the set back on serve at 4-3.
Djokovic again showed his determination by seizing the advantage in the next game, breaking Nadal with a sizzling backhand crosscourt winner and then ending the set on serve in the next game with a backhand winner down the line.
Djokovic made it three breaks in a row against the formidable Nadal in the opening game of the third set, setting the Spaniard down at love.
Nadal leveled the set in the sixth game, foiling the Serb’s serve to make it 3-3.
The match might have turned three games later.
Facing triple break point at 0-40, the Spaniard fought back ferociously, scrambling for every ball to thwart Djokovic, snuffing out the third break point with his first ace of the match on a 125-mph bullet and held after the second deuce.
That seemed to take some of the fight out of the Serb, who was broken in the next game when Nadal blasted a forehand winner up the line to move one set from victory.
“It’s all my fault,” said Djokovic. “I made some unforced errors in the crucial moments with forehands and dropped the serve twice when I should not have.
“Then he started playing much, much better after that, and I obviously could not recover.”
Sensing victory, Nadal was not to be denied.
The Spaniard broke the 26-year-old Serb with a booming forehand to take a 2-0 lead, and with Djokovic wilting against Nadal’s powerful groundstrokes the world number two broke him again to make it 5-1 before serving out the victory.
“It means a lot for me to have this trophy,” Nadal said later, admiring the shining silver cup. “It’s just amazing.”