Rafael Nadal reacts after defeating Kevin Anderson in the U.S....

Rafael Nadal reacts after defeating Kevin Anderson in the U.S. Open men's finals on Sept. 10, 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Who is the greatest male tennis player of all time?

Today, the answer is Roger Federer, who owns 19 Grand Slam titles. Tomorrow? The answer could very well be Rafael Nadal, who won his 16th title Sunday when he cruised to a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win over 28th-seeded Kevin Anderson in the U.S. Open men’s final at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The tournament opened with a lot of talk about Nadal-Federer, with many hoping they would meet in the final. And though that possibility was ruined when Federer lost in the quarterfinals, you really wouldn’t have known it, considering how many times his name was evoked after Nadal’s win.

The two each won two Grand Slam tournaments this season. Federer was victorious at Wimbledon and beat Nadal in five sets in the Australian Open final; Nadal captured the French Open and U.S. Open.

It was a resurgent year for both players. Federer hadn’t won a Grand Slam since 2012 Wimbledon and Nadal’s last Grand Slam win was the 2014 French Open. Though Federer remains three wins ahead of Nadal, just as he was at the beginning of the season, he also remains five years older. Barring injury, Nadal has a pretty good chance of catching him.

This, of course, is not something Nadal feels all that comfortable talking about. Nadal said Sunday that he understands that the rivalry is good for the sport, but he indicated that it probably doesn’t mean as much to him as it does to the fans.

“I never think much about that,” he said. “I do my way and he does his way. He has 19, I have 16. That’s a big difference. I don’t think much about this.”

But don’t think other people in tennis don’t.

Anderson said the rivalry between the two is alive and kicking.

“I mean, it’s very close right now,” he said. “I mean, obviously staying healthy would be the biggest obstacle to that. Roger is obviously a few years older than him, but he’s had an amazing year, two Grand Slam titles this year. I mean, I’ve always said he’s one of the obviously greatest players of our sport, obviously feeling very confident. He seems to have turned around a lot of those injuries he’s experienced the last couple of years. I guess time will tell on that.”

Anderson, who played in his first Grand Slam final, clearly felt the weight of facing a legend. At times, he played as if he were more than a bit star-struck: He made 40 unforced errors to Nadal’s 11 and never even made it to a break point.

He sounded more than a bit star-struck after the match. “I really want to congratulate Rafa. I know we’re the same age, but I feel like I’ve been watching you my whole life,” Anderson said during an on-court interview. “You’re one of my idols.”

The door was opened for some new blood in this year’s final when injuries sidelined Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka earlier in the season and No. 2 seed Andy Murray was a late withdrawal. Federer struggled with health problems.

That left Nadal as the last superstar standing. He took advantage of the situation by cruising through an easy field — 24th seed Juan Martin del Potro was the only seeded player he faced — en route to the final.

While Nadal doesn’t like to talk about chasing Federer, he does realize that he has been a part of a special era in men’s tennis. He counts his rivalry with Djokovic right up there with his rivalry with Federer.

Said Nadal: “Yeah, is great, and in the same time, have been a difficult moment to win a lot of titles, but in some way, we should be very happy, no? Because our three, we still won a lot of things, and probably even Roger and me or Novak even much more than we ever dreamed. We feel very happy about all the things that happened to us, and probably everybody, we feel lucky in some way.”

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