One more match. Two Mondays ago this 2011 US Open was full of possibility. Now, it's all history with the exception of the men's final. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will contend for the US open championship on Monday afternoon. Here's how we see things unfolding.
Men's Final: (1) Novak Djokovic v. (2) Rafael Nadal
Thinking about Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal requires you to be a student of history, both recent and virtually ancient. Recently, it's been a rather one-sided affair. Djokovic, a veritable national hero in Serbia, has run the table against the man he supplanted at No. 1 this July. Five matches in 2011, five wins. It's not as if Robo-Nole has only trained his lasers on Nadal this season, he's 63-2 on the year and the reigning champion at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Before the rise of Robo-Nole, in what tennis historians will one day consider, the Gluten Era, Rafael Nadal was 16-7 against Djokovic, strikingly similar to his record against Federer (17-8). Before this year, Nadal was dominant against the two best players of his era and between 2004-2010 won all but three of the major tournaments that weren't won by Federer. For a lot of that period, the poorly informed would posit that the Spaniard couldn't play on hardcourts, titles at the 2009 Australian and 2010 US Opens have silenced those critics...or at least forced them to change their tunes.
With the history laid out, there are three simple questions left on the table are simple.
- Is Djokovic now simply just a better player than Nadal?
- Does Nadal believe he can beat Djokovic?
- Who will get it done in this year's US Open final?
Is Djokovic now simply a better player than Nadal?
Tennis is a game of matchups and patterns. It's been described ad nauseum how Nadal's high looping forehand disrupts the rhythm on Roger Federer's weaker backhand side. Similarly, Djokovic's stinging backhand down the line now keeps Nadal from being able to dominate a ground rally from his (lefty) backhand corner. The Djokovic serve has benefited from being free of the confusion of the Todd Martin-era. Now, free-flowing and bigger than ever, the Djokovic serve is less apt to collapse in key moments. Nadal also improved his serve coming into last year's US Open, but that extra gear hasn't been apparent in this year's edition. Djokovic's new gluten-free diet turned his once questionable fitness into an asset, so that he no longer wilts against the brawny Spaniard in the heat. Nadal also held a mental edge over the field built by coming through in the biggest moments. This edge too, has also been dulled by his losing streak to the Serb.
Does Nadal believe he can beat Djokovic?
Nadal understands sports. His uncle Toni has been his tennis coach since he was a boy; another uncle, Miguel Angel, was a World Cup footballer for Spain and the man himself has earned the career golden slam. He knows what it takes to win. He also knows that on any given Sunday the better player may not hoist the bigger trophy. His reaction to upsets and losses have always been honest and measured, knowing that if he keeps getting to play Djokovic, he's going to have his chances. "It's true, we can analyze that my game is not bothering [Djokovic]. We have to find how I can bother him another time," Nadal said following his loss at Wimbledon. "We started with 128 players. One has to win, but he's going to lose in the future," he continued.
In the two months since they last faced off, Nadal has been working to figure out how his game can better bother the World No. 1 all the while knowing that his next win over Djokovic may just be a matter of time anyway.
Who will get it done in this year's US Open final?
Nadal was my pre-tournament pick. I felt coming in that Djokovic was due for a loss, that his shoulder might not hold up and that mentally he was beginning to have a letdown. A win for Djokovic here cements Djokovic's individual season as being among the very best in history, but for Nadal it vaults him back into the conversation about the very top of the game right now. Surprisingly, Nadal's best matches against Djokovic this year were on the hardcourts. He took the first set in both of their matches early this year at Indian Wells and Miami before being overcome by Robo-Nole.
I don't like to go back on my predictions, but I will admit that Djokovic looked better in the early rounds than I expected. However, Janko Tipsarevic and Roger Federer showed that Djokovic isn't unbeatable this tournament, you'll just have to play every point to do so. Rafael Nadal can do that. Aside from a few loose points versus Andy Murray in the semifinals, Nadal has played excellent tennis in the last few rounds; peaking when it matters most. Call it a hunch, but my pick is still Rafael Nadal to win his 2nd US Open title.
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