NEW YORK -- He is known for nothing if not mental toughness, but the legendary steel of Rafael Nadal has been put to the fire like never before in 2011.
The defending U.S. Open champion is winless in five matches against Novak Djokovic this year, with each of those meetings coming in finals. The first four were at Masters 1000 events -- tournaments one click lower in prestige than Grand Slams -- at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome. But not until Nadal ceded the Wimbledon title and the No. 1 ranking to Djokovic with shockingly little resistance in July did the 25-year-old Spaniard confess to creeping feelings of self-doubt.
"I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year, because for moments I didn't believe 100 percent with the victory," Nadal said Saturday after progressing to Monday's U.S. Open final against Djokovic (4 p.m. ET, CBS), which marks the first time the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players will face off for the men's title since Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi in 1995.
"That's big problem."
More than any of Nadal's previous six matches here in Queens, Monday's showdown with Djokovic will take place in the six inches between the ears. And Djokovic, whom Nadal calls "obviously the favorite," is hardly wanting for confidence. "I know that I have a game that is good enough to win against him," he said. "I proved that this year on three different surfaces."
Nadal is all that stands between Djokovic and one of the greatest individual seasons in tennis history, a campaign that would rank favorably with Rod Laver in 1969, Jimmy Connors in 1974, John McEnroe in 1984 and Roger Federer in 2006. The 24-year-old Serb is 63-2 with nine titles and can become just the sixth man to win three majors in the same year, joining such esteemed company as Laver, Connors, Mats Wilander, Federer and Nadal.
How did Djokovic turn the corner against Nadal after losing 16 of their first 23 matchups? It wasn't just the drastic step of swearing off pasta, pizza, muffins, pretzels and other gluten-rich foods after discovering he was allergic to the protein last year. He's also made considerable progress on his serve, particularly in the delivery, which Nadal has struggled to read in recent meetings. Djokovic's once-iffy forehand has finally caught up to his two-handed backhand, which enables him to crush winners off either side. His redoubled stamina translates to improved court coverage and ability to hit on the run, forcing Nadal to hit two or three more balls than he's accustomed to: Djokovic is the first player in anyone's memory to consistently outslug Nadal in extended rallies. "His movements are better than before, he's having less mistakes than before," Nadal said. "He's a very complete player."
No one in today's game can probe and exploit a weakness better than Nadal -- see Rafa's steady diet of high-bouncing balls delivered to Federer's backhand side -- but what if your opponent has no weakness? "You have Novak in front and you say, 'How can I beat him?' The backhand is fantastic, the forehand is fantastic, the serve is doing really well, the movements are probably the best in the world today," Nadal said. "The only way to beat him is believe in the victory, play aggressive and play every moment perfect."
It's easily overlooked amid the hubbub of Djokovic's historic season, but the stakes are high for Nadal too. He's one win away from an 11th Grand Slam title and level terms with Laver and Bjorn Borg. Rare air indeed, but pursuing the ghosts of tennis past means little if Nadal can't answer the challenges of the present.