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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A brilliant run at the U.S. Open ended in defeat on Monday for Novak Djokovic, who managed to take consolation in his return to top form and the way he showed his heart by battling to the end.
"I cannot hide the disappointment," the 23-year-old Serb told reporters after falling 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-2 to world number one Rafa Nadal of Spain in the rain-delayed men's singles final at Flushing Meadows. "It's just I'm not gonna cry or complain about that. It's just the way it is."
Djokovic has battled questions in the past about his grit after retiring from matches due to heat exhaustion, difficulty breathing, blisters and cramps.
He has twice retired against Nadal in grand slams, waving the white flag during the quarter-finals of the 2006 French Open after losing the first two sets, and again during the 2007 semi-finals at Wimbledon.
As reigning Australian Open champion in 2009, he retired from his quarter-final with Andy Roddick because of cramping.
Djokovic, however, dispelled any doubts about his heart with his run over the past two weeks, which included a five-set comeback over compatriot Viktor Troicki in the first round, and another come-from-behind five-set victory over five-times Open winner Roger Federer in the semi-finals.
Djokovic dismissed two match points to fend off Federer, tapping his heart with his racket after reaching back to rifle two forehand winners to stay alive.
His victory denied Federer a trip to his seventh successive U.S. Open final and allowed the Serb to leapfrog the Swiss as world number two.
Against Nadal, fixed on claiming the U.S. Open title to complete a collection of all four grand slam crowns, he again fought back after dropping the first set, and gave the Spaniard a mighty battle, denying him on 20 of 26 break points.
"Of course, I am feeling bad about my loss. I wanted that trophy, and I know I gave my maximum to get it," said Djokovic, who was also the runner-up in 2007 to Federer.
"But when I sleep over the night, tomorrow I will wake up as a new man," he vowed. "You know, I will continue on working hard and waiting for the next chance to come."
While Djokovic was made to work hard to reach the final, Nadal advanced without the loss of a set. Gradually worn down in a battle of booming groundstrokes, the Serb made no excuses.
"I was feeling good on the court tonight from a physical perspective, and just running all over the court and getting a lot of balls back," he said.
"It was just, maybe emotionally I was a little bit drained after the semi-final match, but I recovered. This is one of the matches where the opponent plays better than you, and you just have to congratulate him and tell him, 'You're better.'"
Djokovic had not reached a grand slam final since his 2008 Australian Open win and he took heart in the way he snapped back to relevance by following up a semi-final run at Wimbledon with his stirring U.S. Open campaign.
"I've played the best tennis certainly the last seven, eight months, maybe the whole year," he said.
"So from Wimbledon up to this point, I feel much more comfortable on the court, more confident and getting this aggressive game back, and the game that I need to have in order to stay at the top."
Editing by Greg Stutchbury