NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet in the U.S. Open men's final on a Monday for a second straight year, but things could not be any different than they were 12 months ago.
In 2010, Nadal was almost unbeatable, a player at the peak of his powers. The Spaniard had just won the French Open and Wimbledon titles and reached the final at Flushing Meadows without dropping a set.
But Djokovic was struggling. The Serbian had not played in a grand slam final since he won his only major at the 2008 Australian Open and questions were being asked about his state of mind after he had developed a reputation as a quitter.
The result of the final was a foregone conclusion. Djokovic played well and won a set but Nadal was too good and he won the match to become just the seventh player to win all four grand slam titles and his ninth overall.
Talk immediately turned to whether he could surpass Roger Federer's record of 16 grand slams and surpass him as perhaps the greatest player of all time.
But now, the players have switched positions as Djokovic is the undisputed world number one and Nadal is the one battling to find his best.
Last year's final proved to be a turning point for Djokovic and he started this season with renewed determination. He won the Australian Open in January to prove that he was no one-hit wonder, then Wimbledon in July, beating Nadal in the final.
It was the fifth time this year he had beaten Nadal in a final following wins at Indian Wells and Miami then Madrid and Rome, on clay, the Spaniard's favourite surface.
Nadal managed to win the French Open when Djokovic was beaten in the semi-finals by Federer but his loss to Djokovic affected his confidence and the swagger he had before last year's final has all but disappeared.
"He's obviously the favorite for the final," Nadal said after beating Andy Murray in the semi-finals. "I know I have to do something better than the other matches to try to change the situation."
Nadal's form in his early matches was scratchy but he has steadily improved with each match and has dropped just one set, against Murray, in getting to the final. He is starting to look like the triumphant player of last year but admits Djokovic still has a mind hold on him.
"I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year. That's true," Nadal said. "That's what I'm going to try to change for Monday. If I'm not ready to change for Monday, I have a goal to do it for next year."
Life could not be sweeter for Djokovic. Not only has he lifted his tally of grand slam titles from one to three, he is enjoying one of the best seasons ever seen.
He has won nine titles in 2011 and lost just two of the 65 matches he has played, against Federer at the French Open and against Murray at last month's Cincinnati Masters final when he retired with a shoulder injury.
His form at Flushing Meadows over the past two weeks has been breathtaking. He lost just one set, a tiebreaker against his Davis Cup teammate Janko Tipsarevic, in reaching the semis then showed his fighting qualities when he saved two match points to beat Federer in a classic five-set thriller.
"We have a saying, 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'," Djokovic said. "It's obvious that this is the best year of my career, by far.
"The confidence level is very high at the moment and that helps me to get into these big matches and go for my shots."
(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)
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