NEW YORK -- Martina Navratilova has lived in the space Rafael Nadal currently calls home. In 1983, she finished with an 86-1 match record, losing only to Kathy Horvath in the fourth round of the French Open. The following year, she won 74 consecutive matches, the longest winning streak, male or female, in tennis history. How does it feel to be invincible?
"When you are playing that well, you almost forget how to lose," Navratilova said on Saturday. "You have this extra confidence on the big points and you are not second guessing yourself. Even if you choke or get nervous, it's okay, you can still handle it. Rafa knows on his best day he will probably beat everybody. It's a great feeling. You just get this sense of 'I almost don't know how to lose' and the other guy thinks he needs to redline to win."
Nadal's last loss on a tennis court came 74 days ago, a still-hard-to-believe first-round defeat at Wimbledon to No. 135-ranked Steve Darcis of Belgium. Despite that stunner, he is 59-3 in 2013 -- including 21-0 on hardcourts -- and has advanced to the final of 12 of 13 tournaments, winning nine titles. In the U.S. Open semifinals on Saturday, he rolled through No. 8-seed Richard Gasquet in straight sets, though the Frechman did break Nadal in the second set, the first time Nadal had been broken after 88 service games. The win set up a delicious Monday final at 5:00 p.m. EST between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who found a solution to a difficult problem named Stan Wawrinka earlier in the day. Now Djokovic gets to tackle the most difficult problem in tennis: How do you beat Nadal right now?
"It is the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now," Djokovic said. "I mean, he's the ultimate competitor out there. He's fighting for every ball and he's playing probably the best tennis that he ever played on hard courts. With no doubt, he's the best player at the moment, no question about it. 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 many injuries on this surface, but now he looks fit."
Much has been written about the Federer-Nadal rivalry (Nadal leads 21-10) but Djokovic-Nadal is far more competitive. Overall, Nadal leads Djokovic 21-15, but Djokovic holds an 8-7 margin over their last 15 matches, starting with the 2010 U.S. Open. This year, Nadal won two of their three matches including a pulsating 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) win in the semifinals of Montreal last month.
The final marks the 11th meeting between the players at a Grand Slam tournament -- Nadal leads 7-3 -- and the third time they will play for a U.S. Open title. Nadal won in four comfortable sets to win the 2010 crown; Djokovic delivered payback a year later in four sets. No male players in the Open Era have faced each other on more occasions (Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe played 36 times) and what's remarkable is Djokovic (age 26) and Nadal (27) still have miles to go before they turn 30. They could play 10 or more matches against one another, providing both can stay healthy.
Asked how much he enjoyed playing against Djokovic, Nadal smiled. "I prefer to play against another one, but is what it is," Nadal said. "We have to be honest, no? We don't have to be stupid (smiling). Talking about a final, I want to play against a player that I have more chances to win, but I played against him a lot of times. Always we played very exciting matches. It is good if both of us are playing at very 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. I need to keep playing very aggressive, and play a very, very good match."
"I have played him already here twice in the finals," Djokovic said. "I know what I need to do. Now it's of course easier to sit here and say, 'I know what I need to do.' I've got to do it on the court."
What Djokovic must do is come out far stronger than he did on Saturday. He played the first set against Warinwka with jangled nerves and little energy -- Djokovic said after the match that he thought it was unfair that that he was assigned a noon semifinal match following a late quarterfinal on Thursday night -- and Wawrinka capitalized early with aggressive play from the baseline. The Swiss won the first set in 34 minutes but Djokovic eventually grinded his way back in the match thanks to punishing groundstrokes, timely serving, and Wawrinka suffering from upper leg pain. At 1-1 in the fifth set, after a game that saw 12 deuces and lasted 20 minutes, the players received a deserved standing ovation for their work. We have not seen vintage Djokovic in this tournament -- he has been broken 10 times -- but here he is in his third Grand Slam final of 2013 and the 12th of his career (he's 6-5 overall). "I love playing on Arthur Ashe Stadium," Djokovic said. "Next to Australian Open, I think this is definitely my most successful court that I played on. Playing four finals now in a row and five in total, I mean, it's great."
Djokovic won't be Nadal's only opponent on Monday: He now plays matches through the larger prism of his place in the sport. If he defeats Djokovic on Monday, he'll win Grand Slam title No 13. That would put him alone in third place all-time behind Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14).
"No doubt that when you win a big match, the feeling is great," Nadal said. "Novak is a great opponent. It is true we already play a lot of important matches for our career, so that makes this confrontation special. When you have the chance to win against the most difficult players, is true that the victory is more special. But not in a final of the US Open. What really is important is to win the tournament, not the opponent."