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Saturday, September 10, 2011
Updated: September 15, 12:59 PM ET
The growing aura of Novak Djokovic

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The cold, hard numbers already said that Novak Djokovic was having one of the most memorable seasons tennis has ever seen. But the great escape he added to his historically great year Saturday, when he roared back from two sets and then two match points down to knock off Roger Federer and move into Monday's U.S. Open final opposite Rafael Nadal, added the sort of anecdotal evidence that will be talked about even longer.

That's the way it usually goes with the sort of remarkable year that Djokovic is stringing together. Long after people forget the amazing 63-2 record that Djokovic has built so far this year, they're likely to talk about the way he kept alive his chance to become only the seventh man to win three Grand Slam titles in a single year Saturday.

He was down to his last chance against Federer, tennis' all-time Grand Slam king, and then smacked one of the more wondrous clutch shots you'll ever see.

Part of the surprise was that Djokovic tried the all-or-nothing shot at all, knowing he was trailing 5-3, 30-15 in the fifth set with Federer serving with two chances to win the match. And the rest of the wonder was what Djokovic came up with next: A forehand service return winner for the ages off a high-kicking Federer serve. It was so perfectly timed, so cleanly struck, even Djokovic later confessed he wasn't sure how much of it was attributable to luck versus guts versus his uncanny sense of anticipation.

"It's a gamble -- if it's out, you're lost," Djokovic said.

Djokovic took an exaggerated bow when it worked. The Serbian star eluded the next match point, too, when Federer got an unlucky carom off the netcord and the ball spun backward and down on his side of the net. And Djokovic was on his way to a rematch of last year's U.S. Open final against Nadal.

What should worry Nadal about this year's showdown is that Djokovic admits he probably wouldn't have even tried to hit that match-saving shot against Federer if he wasn't having his career year. Djokovic is still on track to match or better Federer's record for fewest losses in a season (five). He'll keep the No. 1 ranking that he picked up for the first time three months ago, when he beat Nadal to win Wimbledon. He already has 10 titles in 2011 -- and counting.

"When you are [down] match points in the fifth set after four hours of play and you hit that forehand winner, you must be a little bit amazed under the circumstances that you hit that shot," Djokovic admitted. "It's all mental to be able to handle the pressure well, to be able to step in, and take the chances that are presented.

"I would lie to you if I say I didn't think, 'I'm going to lose.' … The confidence level that is very high at this moment for me helps me to get into these big matches and go for shots that you know, maybe in some [past] situations I wouldn't. I wasn't going for those shots in the past couple years."

TBD
Novak Djokovic sure doesn't have those mental cracks that hurt him in the past.

Djokovic will probably have to play consistently better to beat Nadal -- a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 winner Saturday over Andy Murray of Great Britain -- even though he's beaten the 25-year-old Spaniard the past five times they played.

As stirring as Djokovic's comeback win over Federer sounds when you hear just the thumbnail version of the match -- how he came back from a two-sets-to-zero hole; how he reeled off the last four games to win -- the win wasn't all built on nerveless shots and miracle gets. Federer's withering postmatch assessment of himself was right too: "I set it up all perfect. I just couldn't finish it."

Federer was as justifiably hard on himself, same as Nadal was on himself when he lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final.

Back then, Nadal rattled off his four previous losses to Djokovic this year and admitted, "Probably the mental part is little bit dangerous for me. I didn't play well these [big] moments. That's what happened in Indian Wells, that's what happened in Miami, and that's what happened here.

"I don't want to count Madrid and Rome because he played much better than me. But these other three times, that's what happened. And to change that is probably [going to require] being a little bit less nervous. Play more aggressive, and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I'm gonna try next time.

"If not, I gonna be here explaining the sixth [loss]."

Nadal's preparation for this U.S. Open wasn't optimal. He had to take some time off after Wimbledon with foot problems, and when he resumed play he didn't have world-beating results. Once here, his fourth-round match was rained out for two straight days. But an observation that American veteran Andy Roddick made about Nadal after getting steamrollered by him in straight sets in Friday's quarterfinals is often true of Nadal at the Slams.

"I think he has a tendency to play his way into tournaments, and then by the end he's taking [big] cuts," Roddick said. "But I think this is the most aggressive I've seen him play this summer."

Nadal is going to need to keep playing assertively against Djokovic. He's going to have to avoid those mental cracks he alluded to in their other 2011 matches.

If Nadal somehow manages to win Monday's final, it would give him 11 career Slam titles and pull him into a tie with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver for the fourth-highest total of all time, trailing only Roy Emerson (12), Pete Sampras (14) and Federer (16).

If Djokovic wins, it would be career Grand Slam title No. 4.

But Djokovic's proven ability to consistently worm his way now into the minds of Nadal and Federer -- two men with 26 Grand Slam titles between them, remember -- is yet another measure of just how great Djokovic's year has been.

The aura Djokovic is throwing off now isn't exactly a new phenomenon in tennis.

At one time or another, everyone from Nadal to Federer, Sampras to Agassi, Becker to Connors, McEnroe to Lendl, struck the same doubt in opponents in their dominant years. But it's still a sight to behold every time it comes along.

Djokovic already has avenged his only 2011 loss to Federer. Now he gets a chance to avenge last year's loss to Nadal in the Open final, too.

If Nadal feels nervous about Monday's match at all, he probably won't want to watch how Djokovic celebrated his escape over Federer by lowering himself into a deep crouch and beating on his chest with both fists as he screamed. The show of raw emotion went beyond mere joy and felt closer to primal.

But then, Djokovic has had the old guard in men's tennis on the run now for nine straight months. He's earned the right to shout. If he beats Nadal for the sixth straight time come Monday, who can dispute that tennis has a new rising king?