NEW YORK – When Novak Djokovic faced Rafael Nadal in the 2010 U.S. Open final, the guy everyone calls "Rafa" solidified his standing atop the tennis world by earning third Grand Slam title of the season.
Now it's "Nole" who gets a chance to add to his own remarkable run: A victory over Nadal in the title match at Flushing Meadows on Monday would make Djokovic 64-2 in 2011 with 10 titles, including three at majors.
It also would make Djokovic 6-0 against Nadal this season.
Oh, how their rivalry has changed in the short span of 12 months.
"Well, it's obvious that this is the best year of my career, by far. The confidence level that is very high at this moment for me helps me ... go for the shots that I maybe in some situations wouldn't; that I wasn't going for ... in the past couple years," Djokovic said.
"But it's all, I think, a process of learning and getting experience and maturing as a player, as a person," he added after coming back from two sets down and erasing two match points to beat Roger Federer in the semifinals Saturday.
At the end of 2010, Nadal led Djokovic 16-7 in head-to-head matches, including 5-0 in tournament finals and 5-0 in Grand Slam meetings.
It's been a whole different story of late.
Heading into Monday — the fourth year in a row the U.S. Open has stretched into an extra day because of rain — Djokovic is 5-0 against Nadal in 2011. Those matches all were in finals, including on hard courts at Indian Wells, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla., on clay at Madrid and Rome, and on grass at Wimbledon.
After that latest setback, in their only Grand Slam encounter of the season, Nadal acknowledged that Djokovic has gained a psychological edge over him — similar to the sort of hold over Federer that Nadal appeared to gain over the years.
And Nadal sounded a similar note when looking ahead to taking on Djokovic again in the U.S. Open final.
"I am not very happy about my mental performance against him this year. That's true, no? Because for moments I didn't believe really 100 percent (in) victory. That's (a) big problem. Because when that's happening, you have your chances less, much less than if you believe," Nadal said after eliminating Andy Murray in the semifinals. "So that was (a) problem, and that's what I gonna try to change for Monday."
Nadal was asked whether he'd employ a new strategy against Djokovic this time.
"I think I'm going to do serve and volley," he cracked, knowing full well — as does everyone else — that he will stick to the beat-'em-from-the-baseline tactics that have carried the 25-year-old Spaniard to 10 major trophies and a career Grand Slam.
A day after winning Wimbledon for his third Grand Slam title — and No. 2 this year, along with the Australian Open — Djokovic rose one spot in the rankings to No. 1.
That dropped Nadal to No. 2, and Monday's match will be the first U.S. Open final between men ranked 1-2 since No. 2 Pete Sampras beat No. 1 Andre Agassi in 1995. For all of their Grand Slam finals against each other, Nadal and Federer never have played in any round at Flushing Meadows.
Federer appeared set to get to his seventh U.S. Open final in eight years, leading 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set against Djokovic on Saturday. But Djokovic ripped a cross-court return winner to save the first, then fended off a serve into his body on the second and eventually took that point, too.
That began a run of four consecutive games for Djokovic, allowing him to complete a massive comeback and reach his third final in New York. The 24-year-old Serb lost to Federer in 2007, then Nadal in 2010.
"What he does really well this year — he front-runs really well," Federer said afterward. "And he started playing great. It was hard to counter his playing."
That's been the case for pretty much everyone who's tried to deal with Djokovic during what, by any measure, is one of the greatest seasons in the history of tennis.
Or any sport, for that matter.
"Probably his movements are better than before. He's having less mistakes than before. ... He's playing with high confidence," Nadal said. "He's great to keep his mind fresh in important moments, fight every point. He's doing everything fantastic."
Precisely the sort of thing people were saying about Nadal a year ago.
Follow Howard Fendrich at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich