|Rafael Nadal, after his win in the semi-final, on Saturday
New York: And so, after Dan Evans’s firework displays, the Andy Murray damp squib, Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet holding the fort for the one-hander after the racket was ripped from Roger Federer’s grasp, and all the analysis into America’s declining strength, we are left with what we thought we would have before we started: the Rafaole final.
Novak Djokovic against Rafael Nadal on Arthur Ashe Stadium in the first US Open men’s final scheduled on a Monday evening here is the 37th edition of a story that began at the French Open in 2006, when the Serbian retired after two sets — remember those days when he was dismissed as a lightweight with too little resilience and a tendency to quit (he did the same in the 2007 Wimbledon semi-final when 4-1 down in the third set after a blister on his left big toe burst)?
He is a different Djokovic now: the eternal scrapper, the backboard in human form, the flared nostrils and the pumped fist.
Then there is the release of Nadal this year, the man whose form has been so astonishing that he has not lost one of the 22 hard-court matches he has played this year. It was at the Australian Open in 2012 that he spelt out how the surface was wrecking his body. How times change.
“What is really important tomorrow is that it is the final of the US Open, not who is the opponent,” Nadal said, a shrewd comment in that he knows what a talent Djokovic is, how very difficult he is to beat, and that it is how he plays that will be the determining factor.
Against Gasquet, on Saturday, there was enough anxiety in the air to suggest that Nadal is not quite there yet, but, likewise, Djokovic might well have been two sets down to Wawrinka and still prevailed in five mesmerising sets.
Both men have won this championship a single time and the enchanting backdrop to this final is that it will go a long way to deciding which of them finishes this year with the No.1 ranking.
Djokovic will remain ahead whatever happens Monday, but Nadal - with no points to defend between now and the end of the year - is closing fast. Djokovic won the titles in Beijing and Shanghai last year where they will both play next.
“This is not the first time I have something like this [fighting to stay No.1] in front of me,” Djokovic said. “I know how much consistency, hard work and energy I have to put into these 11 months of a tennis season in order to be the No.1 of the world.
“Rafa is in a better position than me right now to win the ranking but I'm still keeping myself going. This is a Grand-Slam final, after all, and these are moments to cherish.”
And so the path has been cleared. Nobody thinks that it will be a short final; the sets between the pair tend to average at about an hour and why should this one be any different? As Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion, said: “Settle back, relax and get ready for a long evening on the sofa.”