Sunday, September 11, 2011

U.S. Open: Nadal tries to break Djokovic's control

But Novak Djokovic has tunneled into the Spaniard's cabeza, and for the second consecutive Grand Slam final the plot line centers on whether Nadal can figure out how to exorcise the Serb from his cranium.

Nadal, the defending U.S. Open champion, leads 16-12 in career meetings and 5-1 in Grand Slam clashes, including a four-set defeat of top-ranked Djokovic in last year's New York championship. The 24-year-old Serb, in fact, had never beaten Nadal, 25, in a final before this season.

But the tide of their rivalry has shifted dramatically in 2011.

Djokovic has squashed Nadal in every corner of the world and on every surface, beating him in five finals and depriving him of his Wimbledon crown and No. 1 ranking in July.

In a brutally honest self-assessment, the No. 2 from Mallorca admitted the mental breach Saturday following his four-set defeat of No. 4 Andy Murray.

"I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year," he said. "That's true, no? Because for moments I didn't believe really 100% with the victory. That's big problem. Because when that's happening, you have your chances less, much less than if you believe."

Djokovic is coming off an emotionally draining five-set victory against Roger Federer, in which he came back from a two-set deficit and saved two match points against the Swiss No. 3 for the second year running — including a rocket return of serve that was part luck and part brilliance.

Djokovic called the effort "the greatest victory I had in 2011," which is not cheap talk considering that he has lost twice all season and added Australian Open and All-England Club titles to raise his career total to three majors.

But history can be fickle, and Djokovic has his own mental demons to wrestle.

As spectacular as his 63-2 season has been, if he fails to capture a third Grand Slam title here and become the sixth man in the Open era to achieve that feat in a calendar year, his 2011 be remembered as very, very good, but not great.

Nadal, in 2010, and Federer in 2004 and 2006-07, already are in that elite group.
Of course, it won't all come down to nerves and mental toughness.

At this level, margins are thin — consider Djokovic's narrow escape in the semifinals — and a few points can spell the difference between winning and losing. Who can execute their game plan will be key.

Baseline bully Nadal agreed that it's more about execution than a strategy overhaul. He will have to keep the ball keep, dictate with his forehand, stay aggressive and take chances.

"I have my game, and I beat him in the past playing my game," he said. "The thing is (to) play my game very well and be enough strong mentally all the time, fight every ball, believe in the victory in every moment. That's something that for moments this year I didn't (do)."

Djokovic will rely on his smothering defense and two-handed backhand, his revitalized serve and his supreme confidence to keep his more experienced Grand Slam foe at bay.

"I know that I have a game that is good enough to win against him," he said of Nadal. I proved that this year in three different surfaces, so I believe that I have a good chance. I need to go out on the court believing I can win. But, you know, we're talking about a player who has won 10 majors already in his career and he's only 25."

In his new biography, Rafa, Nadal says he plays best when he can keep his busy mind at bay. He must also keep it in lockdown if he wants to emerge with a second trophy in New York.

"He's obviously the favorite for the final, and I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation," said Nadal.

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