As Novak Djokovic hit a backhand wide, it brought up two match points for Roger Federer. The headlines were already being written – another Grand Slam final between the two greatest players in the world today. The scene was set, the script was being written. Although nobody seemed to have told Djokovic. The first match point was saved with an excellent drive volley, the second with a magnificent forehand down the line. He held his serve, broke Federer in the next game, and was able to serve out for the match.
So a relatively unexpected US Open Final. Many were predicting a repeat of the 2008 final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray – the two best players on hard courts. However, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal is an enticing prospect for any tennis fan. Nadal has the opportunity to complete the career Grand Slam at the age of only 24. Djokovic is looking for his first Grand Slam title since Australia over two years ago. The bookmakers make Nadal a big favourite. But can Djokovic pull off the upset?
The statistics would suggest that he could. The pair have met 21 times since their first meeting at the French Open back in 2006, with Nadal holding a 14-7 winning record. It seems convincing enough. However, Djokovic has won each of the last three meetings between the two. Although, they all came in the latter part of last year, when Nadal was struggling on his return from injury and his mind was on other matters off the court.
Nine of Nadal’s victories over Djokovic have come on clay, where Nadal is all but unbeatable. Despite this, Djokovic pushed him all the way in their last meeting on the surface, when he eventually fell short, losing 11-9 in a final set tie-break. So, if we exclude these meetings on clay, Djokovic has a 7-5 winning record on other surfaces. On hard courts alone, Djokovic has only lost twice to Nadal, winning all his other seven contests. The first of those defeats was in their first meeting back in early 2007; the other was in the semi-final of the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Following his epic five set victory over Roger Federer, Djokovic admitted to being tired. “I am tired. There’s no secret about that. For four sets, I've been quite OK. Fifth set was very intense, mentally and physically, and it took a lot out of me.” When told of the possibility of rain on Sunday, he joked, “I don’t know the rituals, how to invite the rain. An extra day would be great.” Whatever he did last night, he has got his wish. As the heavens opened, Djokovic must have been smiling, as he gained an extra 24 hours to recover and prepare himself.
However, despite losing four sets to Nadal’s zero throughout the tournament so far, he has actually only been on court just over an hour longer than the Spaniard. But the mental pressure that has been placed on him has been far greater. Less than two weeks ago, he looked to be crashing out at the first hurdle. Two sets to one down, and down a break in the fourth set against Victor Troicki, he was struggling with his game and the heat. He dug deep and squeaked through the match. Since then, he has been impressive, dispatching home favourite James Blake in straight sets, the in-form Mardy Fish, and the unpredictable Gael Monfils, before his moment of truth against Federer.
It is important to bear in mind that it is less than a month since Nadal survived match points against Julien Benneteau, and crashed out the following day to Marcos Baghdatis. However, we must also remember that he may have been using these matches to test out new shots and strategies. We have seen him add pace to his serves in this US Open, and has been rewarded with only two breaks of his serve this tournament. He has also been hitting his forehand much flatter and it is far more penetrating now on this surface.
Djokovic has been returning well so far though, and Nadal will likely get less free points on his serve as he has thus far. Also, on hard courts in particular, Nadal is vulnerable to big hitters, who can hit through him, and good movers, who are able to return a lot of balls into play. The worry is that an in-form Djokovic is both of these. He has hit more forehand winners, and more than double the number of backhand winners than Nadal this week. He is one of the worst match-ups for Nadal on the tour. And this should make it an intriguing final.
People will point to the fact that Federer made a huge number of unforced errors last night. But as he admitted, Djokovic’s game forced him to make the errors, by hitting closer to the lines. He will do the same to Nadal.
The Spaniard is quite rightly the favourite in this final. He has a 4-0 winning record against the Serb in finals, and is the best player on the planet right now. The motivation of completing the Grand Slam will be a major driving force. But he comes up against one of the few men who can stand up against him, and seriously worry him. Without the rain delay, Nadal would have had the fitness edge. But the rain has given Djokovic an extra advantage. Now he may feel that the signs are right for him to pull off the upset, and prove himself worthy to be mentioned alongside the likes of Federer and Nadal.