So they meet again.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal on Monday will meet for the 37th time when they contest the U.S. Open men's final at Arthur Ashe Stadium (5 p.m. ET, CBS). And despite the numbers in front of their names, it's the top-ranked Serb who goes in as the underdog.
No two men have played more times in the Open Era (which began in 1968). Nadal leads 21-15, including 7-3 at Grand Slam tournaments, but Djokovic leads 11-6 on hard courts and 3-2 in major finals. The two have faced off twice in the U.S. Open final, with Nadal winning in 2010 and Djokovic winning in 2011. They've played just three times this year, with Nadal winning at the French Open and Rogers Cup, and Djokovic breaking Nadal's 46-match winning streak at the Monte Carlo Masters.
But on Monday, the historical numbers don't matter. Neither do any of the figures that would seem to give Djokovic the edge in a hard-court match. You don't need stats to know that Nadal is the man to beat; all you need is a good set of eyes. Rafa is just playing better ball these days.
"With no doubt he's the best player in the moment this year," Djokovic said after his five-set win over Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals. "So the way he's been playing he's very confident, but I know how to play him. Hard court is is my most successful surface. I have played him already here twice in the finals. 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,' but I've got to do it on the court."
Asked whether he enjoyed playing Djokovic, Nadal said no.
"I prefer to play against another one, but is what it is," he said, smiling. "At the end, well, we have to be honest, no? We don't have to be stupid," he said with a laugh.
You can sympathize with Nadal's assessment when you consider the sheer physical brutality of their encounters. There was the five-hour, 53-minute battle at the Australian Open in 2012 and the four-and-a-half-hour tug-of-war at the French Open this year.
Here are three reasons why Djokovic faces a tough task on Monday:
Nadal's increased aggression has made things more difficult for Djokovic: Hard court may be Nadal's worst surface, but that's like saying Pablo Honey is Radiohead's worst album (translation: It's still a pretty darn good album). The difference this year is both mental and tactical, and really, they go hand-in-hand.
Gone are the days of Nadal's running around the back of the court eight feet behind the baseline daring you to hit through him. He's standing closer than ever on the baseline and aggressively moving to punish any short ball he can with his devastating forehand. He's cutting off angles, taking the ball even earlier and just suffocating opponents in the rallies. Opponents who grew used to sending balls to Nadal's backhand corner have found that window has shrunk, as his footwork to run around that ball to blister a forehand has improved. Nadal is simply making the decision to go for his shots that much quicker.
The tactical change is one his top opponents have noticed, namely Djokovic. In both his losses to Nadal this year, Djokovic has found himself playing far more defense than he'd like and having to go for more in an attempt to beat Nadal back in the rally.
Here are highlights from Nadal's 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) win in Montreal this summer. Note Nadal's court positioning.
Nadal has been virtually unbreakable: Aside from his decision-making in the rallies, the big story this summer has been the effectiveness of Nadal's serve. Until Richard Gasquet broke him in the second set of the U.S. Open semifinals, Nadal had held 88 consecutive games dating to the second set of his semifinal win over Tomas Berdych in Cincinnati. It's not because he's serving the big aces he unleashed when he won the U.S. Open title in 2010, but because of better placement of his serve and his baseline play once the rally begins.
Djokovic, of course, is a better returner than anyone Nadal has faced in this tournament. But he struggled to break Nadal's serve on the quick hard courts of Montreal, doing so only twice.
Djokovic has not been clutch: The No. 1 has struggled to win matches when they balance on a razor's edge, suffering from mental lapses even when he's in a winning position. It all started in March at Indian Wells, where he blew a 3-0 lead in the third set to lose to Juan Martin del Potro. Then there was Madrid, where he stormed back to take the second set from Grigor Dimitrov and then failed to put away his cramping opponent. A week later, he lost to Berdych in Rome after leading 6-2, 5-2. And against Nadal this year, Djokovic had a 4-2 lead in the fifth set of their French Open semifinal only to lose 9-7, and then in Montreal he did well to force a decisive third-set tiebreak only to play flat to lose it 7-2. It's been a surprising trend all season. Prediction: Nadal in four sets.