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As Saturday careened from Soporific to Super to Super-Soporific, one could only wonder what the final Sunday of the Slam season might hold.  At the center of this conundrum stands Novak Djokovic, who boldly shattered anticipations of a Federer-Nadal final with his most stunning Slam performance since the 2008 Australian Open, or perhaps ever.  Reigniting the rivalry with Rafa that witnessed such epics as the 2009 Madrid semifinal, Novak displayed greater physical endurance and mental fortitude against Federer than all but his most ardent supporters could have expected.  In stark contrast with the Serb’s three previous clashes against the Swiss here was the plotline that unfolded during the climactic stages of their 2010 meeting.  Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the fifth set, all initially went according to the projected script; a fragile Djokovic shanked an overhead, floated a pair of aimless backhands, and rapidly found himself facing two match points.  But the match turned almost at that instant as he unleashed a series of ferocious forehands to save the first match point and then a spine-tinglingly audacious bomb that left Federer flat-footed on the second match point.  Visibly and understandably disconcerted, the five-time champion surrendered his service game with little ado, yet one more test remained.  When Djokovic served for one of the most important victories of his career, he saved a predictable break point with another confident forehand and then patiently outlasted Federer in a 21-shot exchange on match point.

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Whether or not the Serb seizes the ultimate prize tomorrow, this victory signals a second breakthrough and the end of a protracted “sophomore slump.”  Saving further thoughts on that topic until the tournament recap, however, we turn our attention towards his potential fortunes against Nadal.  The victor in seven of his ten hard-court clashes with the Spaniard, Djokovic has dominated him as much as anyone dominates Rafa on any surface.  None of those meetings occurred in majors, however, where the third seed never has conquered the world #1.  Just as importantly, Nadal has won all of the finals that they have played and all of their clashes at majors in addition to their semifinal at the Beijing Olympics two years ago.  Balancing the surface advantage for the Serb, therefore, is the indisputable fact that Rafa remains the superior competitor at the most critical stages of the most critical tournaments.  Throughout their compelling rivalry, Djokovic has delivered some of his most breathtaking, fearless offense against the Spaniard, which in turn has showcased his opponent’s legendary counterpunching and retrieving talents.  In order to capture his second major, the Serb should build upon the adrenaline burst from his epic triumph on Saturday and seek to establish an early lead.  The third seed will need to target lines and corners with a precision equal to his shot-making in the semifinal, but the fast surface will reward him more than almost all of the other courts where he has dueled with Nadal.  Beyond ordinary fatigue, his greatest enemy may be complacency after deposing the monarch whose throne he long has coveted and who was his New York nemesis until this weekend.  If he doesn’t intend to content himself with that accomplishment, he must cede no territory and stand firmly on top of the baseline, pounding his inside-out forehand and two-handed backhand into Nadal’s forehand corner.  Functioning reliably for Murray in Toronto, that tactic exposes the Spaniard’s backhand corner, towards which his movement is slightly less seamless.

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Despite his hard-court record against Djokovic, Nadal enters this final as the clear if not prohibitive favorite, an unusual position for him to occupy in the championship match of a non-clay major.  Confronting the pressure of completing a career Slam (or “career Golden Slam,” in fact), the top seed has enjoyed a far smoother draw than the Serb and has faced nobody more intimidating than Verdasco.  A sudden upward spike in competition did not trouble the Spaniard at Roland Garros this year, but we’ll be curious to note whether he starts the final a little flat before finding his range.  Aware of his opponent’s probable physical and emotional fatigue, Nadal surely will attempt to prolong the rallies early in the match.  Undefeated against Djokovic in a best-of-five format, the world #1 knows that a lost first set might not prove fatal if he ensures that the Serb expends considerable energy in securing it.  On the other hand, Rafa has dropped serve just twice in six matches this week and will not succumb to the pressure of Novak’s sparkling return as easily as he did when his serve constituted just a point-starting shot.  Content to play defense in most of their previous meetings, Nadal should attempt to dictate a greater proportion of the points this time, not only because of the speedier court but to send a message to Djokovic.  If he knows that his adversary will pounce upon opportunities to transition from defense to offense, the Serb will sense greater pressure and attempt riskier gambits in order to avoid surrendering the initiative.  From a psychological perspective, Nadal’s unglamorous but undemanding task is to maintain his bulletproof intensity from point to point as rigorously as his physicality, staying alert for the sporadic lulls into which Djokovic almost surely will stagger.  One of the most opportunistic players in the sport, the Spaniard is ideally suited to that mission and should become the first player since Rod Laver to win three consecutive majors in the same calendar year.

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No, the final won’t be Federer-Nadal, and the US Open probably never will witness an episode of “the greatest rivalry in sports.”  What it will witness tomorrow, though, might well be more intriguing than anything that the weary albeit classic Fedal saga could provide in its twilight stage.  New York always has been a city of the present rather than the past, and this concluding collision eschews the sepia nostalgia of Rafa-Roger for the neon swagger of Rafa-Novak.  Few conclusions could be better suited to the biggest, loudest, brightest Slam of all.

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