NEW YORK (AP):
The stakes are always high, the encounters always memorable.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have built the best rivalry in tennis on a mountain of big-time matches, the likes of which they'll play today in the US Open final.
It will be the 37th meeting of their careers - the most times in the Open era that any two men have played.
"When you are involved in these kind of matches," Nadal said, "you feel special."
Nadal will be going for his 13th major title, Djokovic his seventh. Nadal is seeded second, Djokovic first. This will be their third meeting in the last four years in the final in Arthur Ashe Stadium, a stretch interrupted last year when Nadal sat out with a knee injury.
Nadal won the first match in 2010 and Djokovic won the rematch in 2011. Both were tense four-setters that played a role in the winner being ranked first at year's end.
"It's always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now," Djokovic said of playing Nadal. "I mean, 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."
Both players are seeking their second major title of the year: Djokovic won the Australian Open and Nadal won the French.
Nadal leads the overall series 21-15, though Djokovic has an 11-6 edge on hard courts.
Fittingly for a match with these sort of stakes, the US Open has built in a planned day of rest for the men, abandoning the tradition of playing the semi-finals and final back-to-back over the weekend. It's a nod to the intensely physical nature of the modern game and to the desires of the players, who complained loudly about such a quick turnaround at the tail end of the year's final Grand Slam.
"I like to finish the tournaments on Sunday, not on Monday," Nadal said. "But talking about fair, for sure it's a more fair finish on Monday, having one day off between the semi-finals and final."
The day off will certainly help Djokovic, who grinded through a four-hour, nine-minute five-set win over Stanislas Wawrinka in the semi-finals, while Nadal dispatched Richard Gasquet in three, losing his first and only service game of the tournament.
"Hard court is my most successful surface," Djokovic said. "This is where I can say I feel most comfortable and confident. Hopefully, I can perform better than I did in the Wimbledon final and maybe get a chance to win a trophy."
This year, Nadal pulled out a 9-7 win in the fifth set of a semi-final at Roland Garros, denying Djokovic a chance at the closing leg of the career Grand Slam he most dearly wanted to honour his one-time coach, Jelena Gencic, who died earlier during the tournament.
Their only meeting this year on a hard court came in a US Open tune-up in Montreal, where Nadal won the best-of-three-sets match in a third-set tiebreaker.
"In the end, we have to be honest, no?" Nadal said. "Talking about a final, I'd want to play against a player that I have more chances to win. But I play against him. I've played against him a lot of times. Always, we've played very exciting matches."