Tennis is a game of motion, so it's fitting that two champions with dynamic drive will face off in the U.S. Open final.
Creating space can be a major challenge when two guys who cover ground more thoroughly than Google Earth get going. Operating under the shared believe that no shot is a lost cause, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal make the sliding retrieval look as routine as the split step in their ongoing race for world No. 1. When they meet for the sixth time in a Grand Slam final on Monday, the match may well come down to which man serves bolder, steps inside the court more frequently, and has the daring to hit the timely strike on the run.
"[Facing Nadal is] always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now," Djokovic said. "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."
When Novak and Rafa meet for the third time in the last four Flushing Meadows finals, expect rushes of corner-to-corner rallies as streaks collide. Nadal carries the confidence that comes from posting a 21-0 hard court record in 2013, a year in which he's reached the final in 12 of his 13 tournaments. Djokovic is empowered playing on his best surface. He's won 39 of his last 40 major matches staged on hard courts and is contesting his fourth consecutive U.S. Open final.
Here are five key factors to consider:
The winner of the opening set has won 10 of their last 11 matches—the exception was Djokovic's spirited 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 triumph in the 2012 Australian Open final—and both have been tremendous front-runners. This season, Nadal is 50-1 when winning the opening set and Djokovic is 43-2.
Nadal is serving 67 percent and has surrendered serve just once in the entire tournament, holding 73 straight times before Richard Gasquet managed a break in his straight-sets semifinal loss. He must serve accurately to set up his first strike because Djokovic is one of the best returners in the world, earning a tournament-best 38 breaks—including four in his semifinal win over Stan Wawrinka, who did not face a break point in sweeping defending champion Andy Murray. Djokovic has broken serve seven or more times in four of his six tournament wins; Nadal has only faced 12 break points.
Djokovic can shorten up his backswings, he's more comfortable taking the ball on the rise, and he's attacked net more frequently: The Serb has gone to net 184 times compared to 133 net trips for Nadal. However, Nadal is the crisper volleyer. When Rafa comes to net, he closes the curtain: He's won 83 percent of his net approaches and has used both his drop shot and backhand slice effectively to exploit his growing enthusiasm for the front court.
Novak's ability to strike his sturdiest shot—the two-handed backhand—into all areas of the court helped him combat Rafa's hellacious lefty topspin forehand cross-court during his six-match winning streak. Both men have potent down-the-line drives that could be key components of this match. Djokovic's backhand can exploit Nadal's habit of drifting to his right to hit his forehand from the deuce side; Nadal has the ability to occasionally strike down the line to abruptly alter his preferred cross-court patterns. Djokovic has hit more winners with his forehand (77) than his backhand (32) at the Open and has sometimes opted to hit his one-handed slice backhand rather than his two-hander up the line, but he will need that hit the tougher shot against Nadal.
Considering that five of Djokovic's six major titles have come on hard courts, while Nadal has won just two of his 12 Grand Slam titles on the surface, and you must give Novak the edge as the game's best hard-court player. Because Djokovic is the flatter hitter, he should navigate the sometimes swirling winds of Ashe Stadium better (Monday's forecast calls for a partly-cloudy conditions, winds at 5-10 M.P.H. and a high of 73 degrees). But Nadal's topspin shots can create such bewildering spin that getting a clean strike on the gyrating ball diving into your hip amid a mischievous breeze can be a tricky proposition.
The athletic pedigree ranges from the Spanish soccer pitch to the Serbian ski slopes, but both men are exceptional movers and possess the body control of contortionists, which means the margins are minuscule. Had Rafa cleared the tape with his backhand down the line leading 4-2 in the fifth set of the 2012 Australian Open final, he probably would have won the title. If Novak been more sure-footed near net, he may well have ended Rafa's Roland Garros reign in June.
Because both are shrewd mid-match adjusters, tactics and execution on the move matter.
"The way he's been playing he's very confident, but I know how to play him," Djokovic said. "Hard court is my most successful surface. I have played him already here twice in the finals. I know what I need to do."
Since suffering a shocking opening-round setback to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon, Nadal has roared to a 16-match winning streak in sweeping Masters titles in Montreal and Cincinnati and reaching his third consecutive U.S. Open final, while winning 38 of the last 42 sets he's played. Rafa has held onto serve in Queens almost as vigilantly as the Statue of Liberty clutches the torch, and he's 16-1 vs. Top 10 opponents this season—with the lone loss coming to Novak.
This shifting rivalry is about adjustments: Djokovic adapted to Nadal's cross-court forehand and defensive prowess in winning seven straight matches between the pair from March 2011 through the 2012 Australian Open. Since then, Nadal has played more assertive tennis in winning five of their last six meetings. The question is: Can Rafa play proactive tennis, when necessary, against another acrobatic defender?
"I need to keep playing very aggressive and play a very, very good match," Nadal said. "Only like this I gonna have chances. That's what I gonna try."
Djokovic will be strengthened by his semifinal struggle, and if his backhand is clicking, his serve is working, and he's picking the right times to pull the trigger, he has a strong shot to regain this title. But I picked Nadal to win before the tournament began and have been impressed by his sharp form, the familiar fighting spirit, and the fact he's asserted his variety in playing some of the most aggressive hard-court tennis of his career.
This is a pick 'em match, but I'll ride with Nadal. We're seeing a revitalized Rafa: He is not waiting for a moment to happen, he's making it happen—and that proactive approach may be the difference.
The Pick: Nadal in five sets