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Momentum favors Djokovic this time

By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press / September 12, 2011

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NEW YORK - When Novak Djokovic faced Rafael Nadal in the 2010 US Open final, the guy everyone calls “Rafa’’ solidified his standing atop the tennis world by earning his third Grand Slam title of the season.

Now it’s “Nole’’ who gets a chance to add to his own remarkable run: A victory over Nadal in the title match at Flushing Meadows today would make Djokovic 64-2 in 2011 with 10 titles, including three majors.

It also would make Djokovic 6-0 against Nadal this season.

“Well, it’s obvious that this is the best year of my career, by far. The confidence level that is very high at this moment for me helps me,’’ Djokovic said.

“But It’s all, I think, a process of learning and getting experience and maturing as a player, as a person,’’ he added, after erasing two match points to beat Roger Federer in the semifinals Saturday.

At the end of 2010, Nadal led Djokovic, 16-7, in head-to-head matches, including 5-0 in finals and 5-0 in Grand Slam meetings.

Heading into today Djokovic is 5-0 against Nadal in 2011. Those matches all were in finals, on hard courts at Indian Wells, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla., on clay at Madrid and Rome, and on grass at Wimbledon.

After that latest setback, in their only Grand Slam encounter of the season, Nadal acknowledged that Djokovic has gained a psychological edge. And Nadal sounded a similar note when looking ahead to taking on Djokovic again in the US Open final.

“I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year. That’s true, no? Because for moments I didn’t believe really 100 percent [in] victory. That’s a big problem. Because when that’s happening, you have your chances less, much less than if you believe,’’ Nadal said after eliminating Andy Murray in the semifinals. “So that was a problem, and that’s what I’m gonna try to change for Monday.’’

Nadal was asked whether he’d employ a new strategy this time.

“I think I’m going to do serve and volley,’’ he cracked, knowing that he will stick to the baseline tactics that have carried the 25-year-old Spaniard to 10 major trophies and a career Grand Slam.

A day after winning Wimbledon for his third Grand Slam title - and No. 2 this year, along with the Australian Open - Djokovic rose one spot in the rankings to No. 1.

That dropped Nadal to No. 2, and today’s match will be the first US Open final between men ranked 1-2 since No. 2 Pete Sampras beat No. 1 Andre Agassi in 1995.

Federer appeared set to get to his seventh US Open final in eight years, leading, 5-3, 40-15, in the fifth set against Djokovic on Saturday. But Djokovic won four consecutive games to reach his third final in New York. The 24-year-old Serb lost to Federer in 2007, then Nadal in 2010.

“What he does really well this year - he front-runs really well,’’ Federer said afterward. “And he started playing great. It was hard to counter his playing.’’

That’s been the case for everyone who’s tried to deal with Djokovic during what, by any measure, is one of the greatest seasons in the history of tennis.

“He’s doing everything fantastic,’’ said Nadal.

Precisely the sort of thing people were saying about Nadal a year ago.