But make no mistake; if the Spaniard manages to topple top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the finals of the 2013 U.S. Open, he will have proven himself to be the sport’s best player regardless of what any computer says.
Likewise, should Djokovic win his second Open title in the past three years, he will cement his place atop the sport both in official rankings and overall performance.
That’s just how crazy close the margin is between the sport’s top two players as the season’s final Grand Slam comes to a mouthwatering conclusion at the U.S National Tennis Center on Monday.
Both have won a major this year and have by and large dominated the Slams since the 2010 French Open, combining to win 11 of 14. From a head-to-head perspective, they've faced each other six times on tennis' biggest stage since the 2010 U.S. Open and have split the affairs 3-3.
Given that on-court equality, we can essentially consider Monday's U.S. Open final a tiebreaker of sorts between the sport's most prolific players.
Djokovic and Nadal never seem to disappoint when they share the court in a Grand Slam.
For the third time in the past four years, the sport’s top-two players and most ardent rivals will meet in the Open finals. Predictably, they've split those first two matches and both are vying for a second career title at Flushing Meadows to add to their already-impressive resumes.
Yes, winning the season’s final Slam is the ultimate prize and remains of utmost importance. At the same time, however, the victor will undoubtedly realize a small measure of separation in their ongoing and entertaining battle to determine the identity of the game’s most prolific player.
"Last year I didn't have the chance to play on this court," said Nadal, who missed the 2012 Open due to injury. "To have the chance to play in the final Monday is just a dream for me. It has been two amazing weeks for me."
From a career standpoint, Nadal clearly has the edge over Djokovic. The Spaniard has doubled up his counterpart in terms of Slam championships and has bested the world No. 1 six more times than he’s lost to him.
That 21-15 head-to-head margin includes a 7-3 advantage in Grand Slam confrontations, including the past two times they've tussled—both coming at the French Open.
"Well, it's always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now," Djokovic said about facing 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."
Monday’s Open final, however, isn't about career dominance, but rather current superiority. From that perspective, the separation is far more difficult to discern between the sport’s two giants.
Both players are in search of their second Grand Slam title of 2013. Djokovic captured the Australian Open over Andy Murray back in April while Rafa sat that event out.
Nadal then won a record eighth French Open title back in May over David Ferrer, the 12th Slam title for the Spaniard.
Going back to the 2010 French Open, Rafa has claimed six majors, including three consecutive triumphs to close that season.
In that same span, Djokovic has captured five Slams, including three straight from the 2011 Wimbledon Championships and 2012 Australian Open. All three of those victories came against Nadal in the finals.
The Serbian has reached at least the semifinals in the past 14 Grand Slam events and is contesting his third finals of 2013.
"Novak is an amazing competitor," Nadal said following his semifinal victory. "His results say he is probably one of the best players I have ever seen. He's a great champion and will be a tough final for me, but I hope to be ready for that."
That’s high praise from Nadal who, when healthy, has equaled that dominance if not slightly surpassed it.
After losing seven months to injury, Nadal has been brilliant in his return to the game.
Not only did he become the first man to win the same major eight times in a career at the French, he’s gone a stunning 59-3 this year. Rafa's also perfect on the hard courts since his return to the game.
All told, Nadal has captured nine tournament titles in 2013, compared to just three for Djokovic. Six of those wins have come since the world No. 1 last won at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters way back in late April.
In the world of big boy tennis, however, it’s the slams that matter. While both have a 2013 title, the world’s second-ranked player has one thing his Monday opponent does not—a head-to-head victory in one of those Slams.
In a classic five-set battle, Nadal got the better of Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open, the only time the two have met this year on the sport's brightest of stages.
That changes on Monday when the dynamic duo could very well stage a confrontation that equals or surpasses that amazing match from Roland Garros.
If Rafa should win, it will be two Slam victories over his rival this year and three straight triumphs since the 2012 French Open finals. It would also be game, set and match in the debate over which player is truly the sport’s best.
Yet, should Djokovic tackle a healthy Nadal in a major for the first since the 2011 U.S. Open and earn his second major of the year in the process, his superiority will be both in numbers and performance.
Ultimately, that’s the enticing subplot that is poised to play out at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday.
The primary prize is, of course, the U.S. Open trophy. Yet, for the winner, taking ownership for the status of best player in the sport is a pretty nice double dip.
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