The stakes are always high, the encounters always memorable.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have built the best rivalry in tennis on a mountain of big-time matches, the likes of which they’ll play Monday in the U.S. Open final.
It will be the 37th meeting of their careers – the most times in the Open era that any two men have played.
“When you are involved in these kind of matches,” Nadal said, “you feel special.”
Nadal will be going for his 13th major title, Djokovic his seventh. Nadal is seeded second, Djokovic first. This will be their third meeting in the last four years in the final in Arthur Ashe Stadium, a stretch interrupted last year when Nadal sat out with a knee injury. Nadal won the first match, in 2010, and Djokovic won the rematch in 2011. Both were tense four-setters that played a role in the winner being ranked first at year’s end.
“It’s always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now,” Djokovic said of playing Nadal. “I mean, he’s the ultimate competitor out there. He’s fighting for every ball and he’s playing probably the best tennis that he ever played on hard courts.”
Both players are seeking their second major title of the year: Djokovic won the Australian Open and Nadal won the French.
Nadal leads the overall series 21-15, though Djokovic has an 11-6 edge on hard courts.
Fittingly for a match with these sort of stakes, the U.S. Open has built in a planned day of rest for the men, abandoning the tradition of playing the semi-finals and final back-to-back over the weekend. It’s a nod to the intensely physical nature of the modern game and to the desires of the players, who complained loudly about such a quick turnaround at the tail end of the year’s final Grand Slam.
“I like to finish the tournaments on Sunday, not on Monday,” Nadal said. “But talking about fair, for sure it’s a more fair finish on Monday, having one day off between the semi-finals and final.”
The day off will certainly help Djokovic, who grinded through a five-set win of 4 hours 9 minutes over Stanislas Wawrinka in the semi-finals, while Nadal dispatched Richard Gasquet in three, losing his first and only service game of the tournament.
But is it enough rest for the world No. 1, who will keep that ranking – at least for the time being – regardless of Monday’s result?
In July at Wimbledon, Djokovic played 4 hours 43 minutes in a five-set semi-final win over Juan Martin del Potro, while Andy Murray won his semi-final in four sets. When they returned two days later for the final, Djokovic was clearly not his usual self. He rushed points, tried finishing many of them at the net, which isn’t his strong suit, and paid the price – a three-set loss to Murray.
While Djokovic has the most wins on tour this year on the hard courts (31), Nadal is undefeated – a perfect 21-0. It’s an amazing statistic, especially for a man who missed seven months with knee problems between 2012 and 2013. He won the French Open on clay, his favourite surface, then made a stunning first-round exit at Wimbledon. That loss to 135th-ranked Steve Darcis at the All England Club marks the only tournament of the 13 Nadal has entered this year in which he didn’t make the final.
“He lost three matches this year,” Djokovic said. “With no doubt, he’s the best player in the moment this year, no question about it.”
This will be their sixth meeting in a Grand Slam final.
In addition to the split at Flushing Meadows, they’ve met once each at the other three Grand Slams.
Included in those matches was their five-set Australian Open masterpiece in 2012 that went 5 hours 53 minutes, a record for a Grand Slam final.
Later that year, they had a four-set final at the French Open that stretched over two days because of the rain.
This year, Nadal pulled out a 9-7 win in the fifth set of a semi-final at Roland Garros, denying Djokovic a chance at the closing leg of the career Grand Slam he most dearly wanted to honour his one-time coach, Jelena Gencic, who died earlier during the tournament.
Their only meeting this year on a hard court came in a U.S. Open tuneup in Montreal, where Nadal won the best-of-three-sets match in a third-set tiebreaker.