NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal does not normally do standup comedy but this was a moment he could not resist. Asked whether he would debut a new strategy for his U.S. Open final Monday against Novak Djokovic, Nadal went for the punchline: "I think I gonna do serve and volley," he said with a straight face, before rolling his eyes and smiling.
The sport's baseline bully has no plans to channel his inner-Patrick Rafter after knocking off Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 Saturday in the semifinals. "You know, I have my game, and I beat him in the past playing my game," Nadal said of Djokovic, who has won five consecutive matches against Nadal. "The thing is, play my game very well, be enough strong mentally all the time, fight every ball, and believe in the victory in every moment. That's something that for moments this year I didn't [do]."
After Djokovic's emotionally-draining win over Roger Federer in the first men's semifinal on Saturday, Nadal and Murray battled in front of an Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd that seemed as spent as Federer. The stadium was half-empty when the first ball was struck at 5:45 p.m., and those that were in attendance saw Nadal break the Scot three times in the first two sets.
But Murray fought hard in the third and won the set to get back in the match. Against anyone but Nadal, the Scot likely would have taken the battle to a fifth set. But Nadal has owned Murray this year the way Djokovic has owned Nadal. In Paris, London and now New York, Nadal has knocked Murray out in the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament.
In a long fourth game of the final set, Nadal broke Murray on his third break point when Murray sailed a wild forehand long. It was his 47th unforced error of the match -- Murray would finish with 55 to 23 for Nadal -- and it gave the man from Mallorca a lead he would not relinquish. At 9:09 p.m., after a long day session of tennis that finished under the lights, Murray went wide on a backhand and Nadal was in the finals again. It was his 13th win in 17 career matches against Murray and it extended Nadal's current winning streak at the Open to 13 matches.
In his press conference afterward, Nadal was naturally asked about Djokovic and he made a rather astonishing admission for someone who is generally considered the mentally strongest player on the men's tour. "I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year," Nadal said. "That's true, no? Because for moments I didn't believe really 100 percent with the victory. That's big problem. Because when that's happening, you have your chances less, much less than if you believe. Because if you believe, you are running more, you are putting one more ball inside. So that was problem, and that's what I gonna try to change for Monday."
Nadal continued on this track, when asked if there were any other players who had produced similar doubt: "Yes, against Roger, few matches," he said. "And a few more times. That's something natural, no? I'm a human and I have my doubts. Everybody have, no? So that's something really normal. But the most important thing for me is even if I wasn't ready to beat him this year before here, I keep fighting and keep being in finals even if I lose painful losses."
This has been a strange year for Nadal in that he had finally passed Federer to become the sport's clear No. 1 only to get passed by a player producing one of the sport's great single-season years (Djokovic is 63-2 in 2011). Djokovic is on a five-match winning streak against Nadal including this year's Wimbledon final (grass) and finals in Rome (clay), Madrid (clay), Miami (hardcourt) and Indian Wells (hardcourt). That streak includes winning 11 of the last 14 sets between the players. "I know that I have a game that is good enough to win against him," Djokovic said. "I proved that this year in three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard), so I believe that I have a good chance."
If Nadal defeats Djokovic -- and that is a big if -- he will tie Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver for fourth all-time on the Grand Slam men's singles title holders with 11. Last year at the Open Nadal became the seventh man in history to complete a career Slam and the youngest man in Open history (24 years and three months) to do so when he defeated Djokovic in four sets. But Nadal knows much has changed in 12 months.
"Similarities is we are the same players," Nadal said. "This year I lost last five matches against him, five finals. That's an advantage for him. He's obviously the favorite for the final, and I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation."