NEW YORK — Today's U.S. Open men's final is a resumption of tennis' most heated rivalry, pitting world No. 1 Novak Djokovic against No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
Nadal, the 27-year-old Spaniard with the spin-slathered strokes and fierce fighting spirit, has a 21-15 record against Djokovic, a 26-year-old Serb with unparalleled retrieval skills and a drive equal to Nadal's.
But asked how he felt about taking on Djokovic for a 37th time in his career — and the third time in four years with the Open title at stake — Nadal smiled after mulling the prospect. "I prefer to play against another one," he said. "We have to be honest, no? We don't have to be stupid."
It was an acknowledgment of respect on Nadal's part. The regard is mutual.
"It's always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport," Djokovic said of playing Nadal. "He's the ultimate competitor out there. … And he's probably playing the best tennis he has ever played on hardcourts."
No matter what the computer numbers say — Djokovic will retain his No. 1 ranking regardless of today's outcome — there is a sense the winner will be the player of the year. Djokovic won the first major, the Australian Open. Nadal won the second, the French Open. Andy Murray won Wimbledon. The winner today will have two majors for the year.
For the first time, the Open is purposely — meaning not because of weather delays — playing the final on Monday. Players had complained often about a lack of rest between the semifinals Saturday and final Sunday.
For Djokovic, who was severely tested in his five-set semifinal win over Stanislas Wawrinka — Nadal beat Richard Gasquet in three sets — the extra day off was appreciated. He said he had gotten his energy back Sunday and expected to be ready today.
"Hardcourt is my most successful surface," he said. "This is where I can say I feel most comfortable and confident."