In a statistic that says much for their physical durability, and sustained excellence, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will meet for an Open-era record 37th time in Monday’s U.S. Open final. Such has been their continued place at the summit of the game that the vast majority of those contests have had serious implications. And it will be no different at Flushing Meadows with the winner earning a second Grand Slam title of the year and the right to claim to be 2013’s outstanding player.
Djokovic confirmed his place at the top of the game at the start of the year with his third consecutive Australian Open title. However, he faces his 2013 season being defined by his defeat to Nadal at Roland Garros. The Serbian had made no secret of his desire, bordering on desperation, to claim victory at the French Open and claim the career Grand Slam.
With Nadal not having long returned to the tour following a seven-month injury layoff, this was considered to be perhaps his best chance. In an epic semifinal, Djokovic had his chances but eventually succumbed 9-7 in the fifth set. Djokovic must put that behind him on Monday and also overturn a record of having lost five of his last six meetings with Nadal. That run is startling given that it is just 18 months since Nadal appeared to have serious psychological, as well as physical, issues in overcoming the world No. 1 during a debilitating run of seven straight defeats.
That streak culminated in perhaps the closest ever witnessed to a gladiatorial battle on a tennis court at the 2012 Australian Open final. In a near-six-hour marathon, Djokovic outlasted Nadal in five brutal sets. That came after Djokovic won a five-hour semifinal with Andy Murray and he will again need to show his incredible fitness this time around having needed five sets to beat Stanislas Wawrinka 48 hours before the final.
Few doubt that Djokovic can handle the challenge fitness-wise, but it is likely to take more than that to lift the title for the second time in his fourth straight final in New York.
“With no doubt he's the best player in the moment this year, no question about it,” conceded Djokovic of his next opponent.
Nadal has also undoubtedly been the most impressive performer in the tournament to date and enjoyed a relatively stress-free semifinal victory over Richard Gasquet. Indeed, the only disappointment in the match for the second seed was that he dropped his serve for the first time in these two weeks.
While a continuation of his incredible run in Paris could have been anticipated, what has been startlingly impressive is his record of going undefeated on hard courts this year. The surface is the most challenging for the Spaniard’s troublesome knees and, ironically, that may have helped him produce his best form ever on it. Starting in the warm-up tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal has become more aggressive and looked to end the points quicker. It is sure to still be an incredibly physical battle, but it may take more than that from Djokovic to get the job done.
Prediction: Thus far, the top seed has not looked capable of finding that proactivity to match his most frequent rival, and Nadal should be celebrating come Monday evening, albeit in a match that may still go the distance.
Where to watch: The U.S. Open final begins at 5 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by CBS, with a live stream available on USOpen.org.