NEW YORK • 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 hard courts in March, Novak Djokovic looked like a man in a dinghy without a motor or a sail, losing his opening-round matches at Indian Wells in California 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 with his Wimbledon triumph in July, he returned to dominance by winning the US Open for the third time on Sunday night. His 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 victory over Juan Martin 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 pressure, and, above all, the full-stretch defence that can buckle the knees and spirit of even a player as resilient as del Potro.
"He was back at his best," said his coach, Marian Vajda, who rejoined his team in April and has helped to fix his serve and restore his belief.
Djokovic, who moved up to world No. 3 yesterday and can end the year on top, is now tied with American great Pete Sampras for third on the career list with 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Second-ranked Roger Federer has 20 and world No. 1 Rafael Nadal has 17.
One more Major victory, which hardly seems out of the question at next year's Australian Open in light of Djokovic's affinity for the hard courts in Melbourne, and the top three players from this golden era of men's tennis will hold the top three spots on the career list.
"I mean, the 14 is a number," Vajda added. "Years ago, I would say Rafa and Roger went too far ahead of him with the Grand Slams, and now I have the feeling, he catches up with them."
For now, Djokovic has at least caught his idol. "Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game," the Serb said in his post-final interview.
"He was my childhood idol. 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's a lot of significance being now shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of Slam wins with him."
To achieve that, he had to deny a player who had endured a long wait to be back on the biggest stage, with his only Grand Slam win coming in 2009 at the US Open and a string of wrist operations since that left him contemplating retirement in 2015.
Del Potro is in the midst of a fine season and was the crowd favourite as the Argentinian fans and others familiar with his history threw their support behind him from the start. But Djokovic proved no doubt about which player is atop the form table right here, right now.
"My nickname is Nole," he said of the chants, using it as motivation. "When they shout 'Ole', that's what I hear. I really do." His vanquished opponent concurred, saying: "Novak has everything to make records in this sport."