Best men ready for U.S. Open final

Posted Sunday, Sep. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Seventeen years ago, top-seeded Pete Sampras beat second seed Michael Chang in straight sets in the final of the U.S. Open, preventing Chang from ascending to No. 1 in the world.

One day earlier, No. 1 Steffi Graf defeated No. 2 Monica Seles 7-5, 6-4 to claim her fifth and final women’s crown.

That was the last time the two top players in the world met in the final of both the men’s and women’s U.S. Open.

Until this year.

Rafael Nadal was just 10 years old when Sampras claimed the fourth of his five U.S. Open crowns. Nine-year-old Novak Djokovic was still eating at his family’s pizza parlor in the Serbian mountains.

Now they meet again, No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Nadal, for the 37th time in their careers, for the third time in a U.S. Open final and for the fourth time this year.

Nadal has won their past two matches, both of them glorious extended confrontations, in the semifinals of the French Open on clay and on hard courts in the semis of an ATP Masters 1000 event in Montreal two weeks before the start of the Open.

Djokovic may be ranked No. 1, (and he will remain so regardless of who wins the U.S. Open final), but he has been more vulnerable this year than Nadal.

His 50-8 record includes a win on hard courts at the Australian Open in January (a tournament that Nadal missed due to injury), a runner-up finish to Andy Murray at Wimbledon, as well as two other titles, one on hard courts in Dubai.

Nadal has lost only three of the 62 matches he has played this season, one of them in the final of his first tournament back following a seventh-month hiatus due to a nagging knee injury: one to Djokovic in the final in Monte Carlo in May; and one to 135th-ranked Steve Darcis in a first-round shocker at Wimbledon.

He has won nine ATP World Tour titles thus far, the most since his 11 titles in 2005, and has amassed a 16-match win streak on hard courts for the first time in his life. He won both of his hard-court U.S. Open warm-up tournaments, in Montreal and Cincinnati.

“I prefer to play against another one,” Nadal joked when asked, following his semifinal win over Richard Gasquet, how much he likes playing against Djokovic. “Well, we have to be honest, no? We don’t have to be stupid.”

This is the 11th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic in a major, fifth in the past three years. While only two of them, last year’s Australian Open and this year’s French Open, have gone to five sets, all have been true tests of both mental and physical durability.

“He’s the ultimate competitor out there,” said Djokovic, who was extended to five sets over more than four hours in his semifinal win over Stan Wawrinka. “He’s fighting for every ball and he’s playing probably the best tennis that he’s ever played on hard courts.”

While Nadal has competed against Roger Federer 29 times since 2006, against Andy Murray 18 times and against his countryman, David Ferrer 24 times, he cherishes his rivalry with Djokovic.

“Always we play very exciting matches,” Nadal said. “We are both playing at a good level, so the match becomes great because we play long rallies, we bring our game to the limit and it becomes a very difficult match for both of us. When you are involved in these kinds of matches, you feel special.”

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