The best rivalry in tennis resumes Monday night at the US Open when the top two players in the world, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, collide for the final Grand Slam on the tennis calendar.
Not only is a second US Open crown at stake for both guys, but in my mind the winner will eventually finish as the No. 1 ranked player on the season.
Before I get to my pick, here’s my quick recap of the semifinals.
First, as expected Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka turned out to be the bruising, physical battle as billed with Novak coming out just ahead in this knife fight 2-6, 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. Wawrinka came out hot while Djokovic, perhaps due to the early noon start time I think, was awfully flat.
Playing his first Slam semifinal, Stan dominated the contest for the first hour or so before Djokovic woke up in time to grind out a second set breaker. Stan figured to fade at that point, but credit to the Swiss for staying the course. Wawrinka continued to crack his serve and slug winners when the moment was right. And that was often.
Meanwhile, Djokovic remained out of sorts at times. He got warned for coaching, he occasionally looked in disbelief after Stan continued to pop that backhand for winners.
But in the fourth with momentum back with Stan that’s when he blinked. Djokovic broke early and eventually broke Wawrinka’s thigh muscle.
Despite the injury, which forced Stan off the court for over five minutes, he didn’t close up the shop. He kept at it culminating by outlasting Djokovic to win a 21-minute third game. But that was it. Unfazed, Djokovic went right back to work holding easily then breaking Wawrinka for a final time to lead 3-2. And that was it.
I thought Stan was the better player on the day but in the end he just couldn’t put Novak away. And Novak did just enough to get through the challenge.
That’s why Djokovic’s in No. 1 and Stan, for all his heft and power he showed, will likely never crack the Top 5.
“I tried to be close to the line,” Djokovic said. “But I wasn’t managing to find my rhythm. That’s what frustrated me. I wasn’t hitting the ball well. A lot of unforced errors. But it was one of those days, you know, where even if you don’t feel well on the court you have to be tough and believe that you can win. And I have done so.
“I just tried to hang on and fight and be mentally tough and believe all the way through I can actually win. And I sincerely believed that as the match progresses and longer it goes, I felt I have maybe that physical edge over him, and that I also, being in particularly these kind of matches and situations, playing on a big stage in semifinals.”
Said Wawrinka, “Today I had the feeling when I was still fit, when I was still healthy I had the match in control. I think I was playing better than him. I was doing much more things than him. But he’s not No. 1 for nothing.”
In the late semifinal, Nadal also took care of business in typical Nadal fashion. Rafa broke Richard Gasquet in the Frenchman’s first service game and that pretty much marked the end. Gasquet played well at times – and honestly I think he did better than I thought he would – but despite finally dropping serve Nadal enjoyed a nice day at the office with a 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 victory.
It’s Rafa 24th straight win on hardcourts and he’s remarkably won all 20 this year. Not to mention 12 finals in 13 events with nine titles! Really, who would have believed that back in February when he was coming off seven long months of rehab to fix that ailing knee, he would go on to put up these kind of numbers. And it’s worth asking, is he better now than ever? I’ll leave that for another post.
So the dream final is set.
Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal
On Monday they’ll meet for a 37th time, most among any rivalry in the Open Era. And it’s a good one. It’s appointment TV.
As we’ve seen these two are best in the game off the baseline, the best in terms of defense and the two fittest guys in the game. And that spells longs, tough matches. And because of the extra day off I think Monday will be no different.
“He’s the ultimate competitor out there,” Djokovic said of Rafa. “He’s fighting for every ball and he’s playing probably the best tennis that he ever played on hard courts. He hasn’t lost a match on hard court this year, and we all knew that over the course of last six, seven, eight years, hard court hasn’t been his favorite surface. He has got injuries, many injuries on this surface, but now he looks fit.
“He had seven months off. He lost three matches this year. With no doubt he’s the best player in the moment this year, no question about it. So the way he’s been playing he’s very confident, but, you know, I know how to play him. Hard court is the surface that, as I said, is my most successful surface. I have played him already here twice in the finals. I know what I need to do.”
Nadal has the big lead in this series 21-15 but on hardcourts Novak has the advantage 11-6. However, Nadal has won five of the last six including two recent crushing blows at the French Open and Canadian Open semifinals where he hit Novak in the face.
Novak had chances in both losses as those bad patches crept in at the wrong times, and Nadal took advantage. And that what I see happening Monday.
Mikhail Youzhny got a set. Stan got two. Nadal’s leaps and bounds better than both, what’s he going to do?
In this matchup I’ve often giving Djokovic an edge in the serve-return game. Because of his exceptional return of serve, Novak can really attack Rafa’s weak second serve. But here this week Nadal really been popping that serve of his while Djokovic return game suddenly isn’t as reliable as it once was.
If Novak’s having trouble returning Rafa’s serve it’s going to be a long night for the Serb.
Also missing of late from the Djokovic arsenal is that lethal down-the-line backhand of his. If he can’t hit his backhand to Nadal’s backhand then big edge to Rafa.
This summer Novak’s appeared reluctant to hit that shot. He’ll need it on Monday if he wants to win.
For me those are the two keys to the match and they do reside with Novak because on a quick hardcourt if he’s at his best, that’s better than Rafa’s best.
So based on recent form Nadal’s clearly been better of the two. Novak’s looked sluggish all summer. He’s played well in patches but I just don’t see the consistency that I do with Nadal who seems to stay at that top level much longer.
With Rafa there are just so few bad streaks, so few lapses. And now just three sets from the finish I can’t see him letting down now. When Novak was at his peak it was a pick ’em match in this rivalry, even on hardcourts. With the Serb now off those lofty levels and Nadal never better on this surface, the choice is clear: winning breeds more winning…
The pick: Nadal in four
As for the women’s final Sunday, I think Victoria Azarenka keeps it close but Serena gets revenge for Cincinnati.
CBS will have live coverage of the women’s final Sunday at 4pm and the men’s final Monday at 5pm.
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