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US Open Braces for Intense, Epic Final

Now this is a rivalry.

On late Monday afternoon, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet for the 37th time - with Nadal holding a 21-15 advantage - in the US Open men's final. No two players in the Open era have faced each other as often. The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry is unquestionably more hard fought and riveting than that of the already legendary Nadal and Roger Federer battles, since the Nadal-Federer matches have been one-sided in Nadal’s favor since 2007.

The primary reason why the Nadal-Federer rivalry became such mandatory viewing for tennis fans was that for several years Nadal was the only top player who could consistently challenge the great Federer; and the two did contest what most agree is the greatest match of all time, in the 2008 Wimbledon final.

But the Nadal-Djokovic clashes are far more closely fought and the back-and-forth nature of their rivalry is evidence that each player has gone through phases, attempting to solve the latest riddle his opponent provides; consider the streaks both Nadal and Djokovic have had against each other – Nadal claimed 14 of the first 18 encounters, then Djokovic won 10 of the next 12, and Nadal has now won five of their last six contests.

While it is clear that Nadal has had the upper hand of late – including their latest meeting on hard courts, in Cincinnati just a few weeks ago - it’d be foolhardy to argue that for this reason alone Nadal should be the definitive favorite Monday night.

There is no question that Nadal’s confidence on hard courts is at an all-time high – he hasn’t lost on the surface yet in 2013 – and the fact that he rebounded from seven consecutive tournament final losses to Djokovic was a huge boost to the Spaniard.

Yet the fact remains that Djokovic is very dangerous for Nadal. The reason – he out-Nadals Nadal.

For so many years Nadal would routinely dominate those matches that were contested behind the baseline, with his stamina and extraordinary court speed frustrating opponents and forcing his foes to go for too much in an attempt to arrest the endless rallies.

But then along came the remade Djokovic of 2011. Starting at that point it was he who would consistently win the long rallies from Nadal. And for the better part of a year and a half Nadal didn’t adjust. He stubbornly continued his past patterns against Djokovic – that of the forehand-to-backhand rallies and one-dimensional serving. And Nadal paid a price for such, as that a seven-match losing streak attests.

If Monday’s final is one that is full of excruciating 25-shot points that would clearly play into Djokovic’s game plan. No matter how tired he may be from his taut and tense semifinal victory over Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic wants it to be a match of attrition. While Djokovic has greatly improved his approach shots and net skills, it still doesn’t come as naturally for him and he would rather trade baseline missiles with Nadal, knowing that he’d likely win a slim majority of those points and, with it, the match. 

The other component in Djokovic’s favor is the ultimate intangible – the guy never gives up. No lead is apparently safe against Djokovic and he’s brilliant at taking advantage of the slightest let-up in intensity from his opponent; his semifinal victory over Wawrinka was a good example of this. The mental toll that Djokovic takes on his foes is incalculable. 

For Nadal, his strategy in the final will likely be to continue his brilliant form on hard courts by doing what has worked for him this year – sustained, controlled aggression. This means Nadal has to a) step into the court on second-serve returns, b) hug the baseline on points as opposed to standing back six feet, c) utilize his down-the-line, inside-out forehand with great frequency and, most importantly, d) Nadal has to mix his serving patterns against Djokovic, who owns – by far - the best return in the sport. Nadal would be well advised to empoly the body serve in the ad court, not allowing Djokovic to use his flexibility and stretch out for angled returns.

In short, Nadal needs to be the one to force the action; not in a reckless fashion but on his own terms – granted, that is a thin line. But I’d imagine Nadal would gladly engage in 15-stroke rallies and then look to move forward and put the point away.

Of course, what makes such a rivalry like theirs so compelling is that they know each other’s game so well that, short of one of them serving and volleying on every point, each will not be surprised by whatever the other one does.

Because Nadal has been the overall better player of late, he has to be considered the slightest favorite. We’ll know early on how the match will play out. If Nadal is not “feeling” his game and plays more conservatively at the start then I’d look for Djokovic to force Nadal into mistakes. And if Djokovic comes out a bit slow like he did against Wawrinka then Nadal will jump to the early lead and that spells doom for Djokovic, as he’s one of the great front-runners in tennis.

Whatever the outcome, the match will likely go the distance, long into the suddenly chilly Gotham night, signaling, as it always does, autumn’s start.

One couldn’t ask for a better way to end the summer. 

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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