– The U.S. Open final appeared to be slipping away from Novak Djokovic. He dropped three consecutive games in the second set. He was angered by a crowd roaring for his popular opponent, Juan Martin del Potro. He was, in short, out of sorts.

And then came Sunday's pivotal game, a 20-minute, 22-point epic. Three times, del Potro was a point from breaking and earning the right to serve to make it a set apiece. Three times, Djokovic steeled himself. Eventually, he seized that game — and del Potro's best chance to make a match of it.

A year after missing the U.S. Open because of an injured right elbow that would require surgery, Djokovic showed that he is unquestionably back at his best and back at the top of tennis. Djokovic collected his 14th Grand Slam title and second in a row by getting through every crucial moment for a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over 2009 champion del Potro.

This was Djokovic's third championship in New York, along with those in 2011 and 2015. Add in the trophies he has earned at six Australian Opens, one French Open and four Wimbledons, most recently in July, and the 31-year-old Serb pulled even with Pete Sampras for the third-most majors among men, trailing only Roger Federer's 20 and Rafael Nadal's 17.

"I believe he'll be here again with the champion's trophy. I really do," said Djokovic, who gave his pal a hug at the net, and then went over to console del Potro as he wiped away tears at his sideline seat.

"I was playing almost at the limit, all the time, looking for winners with my forehands, backhands, and I couldn't make it," del Potro said, "because Novak [was] there every time."

Never was that more apparent than the game that stood out on this evening: with Djokovic serving while down 4-3 in the second set. They went back and forth, through eight deuces and all those break opportunities for del Potro, until he slapped one forehand into the net, and another sailed wide.

Those were risky shots but, del Potro said: "It's the only way to beat these kind of players."

When it ended, thanks to a three-game closing run by Djokovic, he flung his racket away and landed on his back, arms and legs spread wide.

"Of course I'm sad I [lost]," del Potro said. "But I'm happy for Novak and his team. They deserve to win."