It’s actually quite remarkable that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have met in the U.S. Open final as the top two players in the world in two of the last three years. While it should be the odds-on-favorite matchup, recent history shows that No. 1 vs. No. 2 rarely happens at the U.S. Open.
What makes it so difficult for the top two players to endure to the U.S. Open final? Conversely, why is New York’s final now unable to stop the exceptional tide that is Nadal vs. Djokovic?
No. 1 vs. No. 2 at the Majors
We recently featured Andre Agassi’s 1995 duel with Pete Sampras as the top two players in the world. They both met in the U.S. Open final. One year later, No. 1 Sampras and No. 2 Michael Chang met for the title. From 1997-2010, 14 years, the top two seeded players did not meet in the U.S. Open final.
This is particularly surprising because of the dominance of the current era’s champions, Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. When Federer was rewriting the record books at Flushing Meadows, Nadal failed to get through his half of the draw. Since, Nadal has been a finalist in all three years he has participated (injured and unable to play in 2012). He and Federer were ships passing in the night.
Nadal's rise at the U.S. Open has coincided with Djokovic's ascension to the top of the tennis world. The Serbian has appeared four straight times in the final.
Just how tough is it for the top two players to survive in New York?
By comparison, Wimbledon featured No. 1 vs. No. 2 seven of the last 11 years. (2004-2005 Federer vs. Andy Roddick; 2006-2008 Federer vs. Nadal; 2011 Nadal vs. Djokovic; 2013 Djokovic vs. Murray.)
The French Open has seen the top two seeded players meet five of the last nine years. (2006-2008 Federer vs. Nadal; 2012 and 2014 Djokovic vs. Nadal.)
The Australian Open also shows hard courts to be more of an equalizer than Paris and London. We get only two top pairings in 14 years. (2009 Nadal vs. Federer; 2012 Djokovic vs. Nadal.)
So the fast courts at the U.S. Open have only produced a final with the top two players twice in 17 years. (2011 and 2013 Nadal vs. Djokovic.)
Neither Nadal nor Djokovic have really ruled in peace because the other keeps coming back, as if they were cosmic enemies fated to clash and war until their careers went supernova. They are not just a prolific rivalry but a diabolical brotherhood like Thor and Loki, unable to coexist or escape from each other.
Nadal vs. Djokovic is already the most prolific rivalry tennis has seen. Never mind that they have played each other 42 times (Nadal leads 23-19) and in 22 finals. They have also met six times in Grand Slam finals (at all four venues) as the top two players, including twice at the French Open and twice at the U.S. Open. For good measure, they also met in the 2010 U.S. Open final, with Djokovic seeded No. 3.
It’s no wonder that tennis fans come to expect this matchup. It has proved to be the most likely pairing in tennis history. Nadal is the king of clay, but Djokovic is currently the second-best player on this surface. Djokovic is great on hard courts, but it’s Nadal’s second surface.
They are all-court warriors who realize they must usually destroy each other to take major titles.
They are also resilient and possess unbreakable spirits. Unlike Agassi, Roddick and other stars—who could be broken or demoralized, often taking a long time to mount another charge—Nadal and Djokovic are willing to endure the suffering of losing. They find added motivation to keep coming back, hiding their painful brushstrokes beneath the time and effort to paint another masterpiece.
Even so, it will be a long, tough road if they are to arrive at the U.S. Open final. It’s the toughest tournament in tennis for several reasons.
Street Tough in New York
The tennis season never seems to end, and by the time the European Slams have concluded in early July. there is often a transition to heal from the physical and mental rigors of tennis. This might include vacation time, training or playing mid-level tournaments.
But getting back to the most competitive grind of tennis is never easy, especially when the concrete surfaces of North America reflect scorching sun and unmercifully attack tender knees.
From August to mid-September, The Canada Open, Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open are as much physical attrition as tennis skill. If Dante were still alive, he would have listed the North American swing as one of the circles of Hell.
It’s hard enough that the U.S. Open is the climax of summer heat and the center of raucous New York, where the fans are overly boisterous and ready to rumble. It was the one place that unnerved the legendary Bjorn Borg. Until late in his career, cool Stefan Edberg melted away like a cup of ice.
Champions must be hard and durable, worthy to span boroughs and walk over water. There are dangerous big servers and baseline grinders. It’s a forum for any style and tennis’ great equalizer. One sensational day from an early-round sleeper, and it could be all over for a top seed.
And maybe this explains best of all why Djokvovic and Nadal have met as the top seeds two of the past three years: They are New York tough.
They are to escape a tennis street war as well as dominate their own turf. They are survivors who simply do not believe they should be the ones to pick up their tourist stickers and taxi to Kennedy or LaGuardia airports.
This survival quality did not come easily to Nadal or Djokovic.
For all of Nadal’s success on clay and at Wimbledon, it took him five years from Roland Garros’ 2005 title before he could get to the 2010 final and defeat Djokovic.
For Djokovic, he had to deal with an early-career sweep in the final to Federer in 2007 and a four-setter to 2010 Nadal, before breaking through for his comeback semifinal and championship in 2011.
But with New York, you just never know. It could be a young, rising star like Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt or Juan Martin del Potro. This is good news for someone such as Grigor Dimitrov or Milos Raonic.
New York could be the career breakthrough, like it was for Andy Murray in 2012 when he ended his long-suffering Grand Slam quest.
Most of all, champions are made through blue-collar effort as well as tennis talent. Jimmy Connors once remarked that “New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there.”
If Connors is right, look no further than Djokovic vs. Nadal. But it’s a long summer with a lot of tennis, and No. 1 vs. No. 2 is still the exception rather than the rule.