Here we go again. In just a few short hours, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will square off for an Open Era-record 37th time in the 2013 U.S. Open final. The winner will earn his second U.S. Open title and reign once again as the King of Queens.
Both players stormed their way through this year’s draw, dropping just a single set apiece heading into Saturday’s semifinal matchups. But on Saturday, Monday’s favorite became clear. In the second match, the second-seeded Nadal trounced No. 8 Richard Gasquet in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2. Though his service was broken for the first time all tournament (a streak that ran just shy of 70 games), Nadal remained in control throughout the evening and never appeared in danger of losing his first hard court match of 2013.
Djokovic, on the other hand, had a much more trying afternoon. His semifinal opponent, No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka stormed to a commanding 6-2 first-set victory that saw him break the top-seeded Serb twice. Djokovic, 26, appeared uncharacteristically unnerved during the early going, screaming after lost points, yelling at his player’s box and looking downright befuddled by Wawrinka’s powerful groundstrokes. Though Djokovic managed to eek out the second set in a tiebreak, it was Wawrinka who appeared in control of the match. Wawrinka won the third set but made a crucial tactical blunder in the fourth when he smashed his racket to bits after a lost point early in the set. Perhaps more than any other player on tour, Djokovic feeds off whatever mental cracks an opponent shows. Djokovic captured the fourth set and, despite losing a spectacular 21-minute game early in the fifth (the crowd at Ashe gave both players a standing ovation before it even ended), won the match 2-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to earn his place in Monday’s final.
The discrepancy between semifinal performances isn’t the only reason Nadal is favored this evening. The Spaniard owns a 21-15 all-time edge over Djokovic and won their lone 2013 hard court meeting in Montreal last moth. The last time the two met on hard court prior to that matchup was in the finals of 2012 Australian Open. Djokovic won that epic five-set marathon, but he was a different player 20 months ago. At that time, he was coming off one of the all-time great seasons in the history of men’s tennis. Though he’s still ranked No. 1 in the world (a ranking he’ll cede to Nadal regardless of tonight’s outcome), Djokovic hasn’t been nearly as dominant in 2013. He’s won just three titles to Nadal’s nine and doesn’t seem to have quite the same confidence in his groundstrokes that he did when he won the U.S. Open in 2013 and was doing things like this. That Djokovic seemed downright invincible. This one is far more reliant on endurance and guile—two qualities that Nadal also owns.
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Arthur Ashe Stadium—with its raucous evening crowds and swirling winds—always adds an extra element of unpredictability to matches, but nothing has been able to slow Nadal thus far. Though there remains the chance that Djokovic recaptures his 2011 magic and scores the upset, all signs point to the 27-year-old Spaniard’s second Grand Slam title of his magnificent 2013 season and the 13th of his increasingly remarkable career. This year, Nadal appears to be the invincible one.