Nadal's ascent could start Monday

NEW YORK -- It sounds odd to say that all-time Grand Slam title leader Roger Federer needed to get to, and then win, the U.S. Open final against Rafael Nadal.

But if Federer wants to retain his unofficial title as the best player of all time, he arguably needed to beat Nadal again in a Grand Slam final, at the one major Nadal has never won but Federer has owned almost as much as Wimbledon -- if only for Federer to prove he still can.

Instead, Nadal -- who will play third-ranked Novak Djokovic rather than Federer in Monday's final -- just continues to gain ground on Federer for Best Ever faster than Federer can hold him off.

Nadal's ability to someday overtake Federer's career total of 16 Grand Slam titles it is certainly not a fait accompli if he wins Monday.

But the persistent question of who is the best men's player in history -- Federer or Nadal? Nadal or Federer? -- is the hottest topic in tennis.

If Nadal finishes off Djokovic in the final to win his first U.S. Open championship, he'll become only the seventh men's player to complete a career sweep of the four major titles -- yet another advantage in the record book Federer once had over Nadal, only to see Nadal methodically cross it off the list.

Federer sat a forbidding 10 major titles ahead of Nadal after Federer won the Australian Open at the start of this year. But the gap will be whittled to seven if Nadal beats Djokovic.

Nadal also would become the first man to win the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year since the great Rod Laver did it 41 years ago.

These are historic footsteps Nadal is taking. At 24, the Spaniard is in his prime. Federer, now 29, figures to be running out of chances to pad his Grand Slam total, or at least slow Nadal's chase of No. 16 -- the last major advantage Federer still lords over him.

It's hard to see Federer erasing the 14-7 head-to-head advantage Nadal has against him, or especially Nadal's 6-2 edge in their Grand Slam finals showdowns.

Of course, Nadal could make the discussion a lot spicier if he'd play along and openly declare he wants the Slam record, same as Federer did when he was chasing Pete Sampras.

But Nadal, as usual, wanted no part of such talk Saturday after he needed only two hours and 13 minutes to roll past Mikhail Youzhny of Russia, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in the day's first semifinal.

Nadal deflected several suggestions that he could someday displace Federer as Best Ever the way he usually does, at first protesting, "No, no, no" and then adding: "I don't really believe I can arrive to Roger's level."

Djokovic didn't mind answering the question. "I give him a big chance," Djokovic said.

Djokovic knows he'll have to play even better against Nadal then he did against Federer. Resilient as Djokovic was, saving two match points in the 10th game of the final set, and ultimately outdueling the Swiss star 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5, it won't help that Federer kept Djokovic on court for three hours and 44 minutes.

Djokovic has a 7-3 career record against Nadal on hard courts. But immediately after beating Federer, Djokovic was dwelling more on the mere 20 or so hours he'd have to rest before facing Nadal.

"I will give my best to recover and give him my best challenge," Djokovic said. "He's the best player in the world."

Djokovic's speed and court coverage are two strengths. Problem is, Nadal can say the same. Against Federer, Djokovic's return of serve was impressive -- another skill he'll need against Nadal, who has lost only two service games the entire tournament.

Both Djokovic and Nadal hit with power. But Nadal has more. Getting stuck in long rallies with him is like being slowly squeezed to death by a python.

Still, Djokovic has the sort of varied game that could bother Nadal. And look: Federer had beaten Djokovic three straight years in the Open semifinals before finally being toppled this year. So maybe the Serb star has one more breakthrough left in him.

If Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champion, can upset Nadal, he'd be the only man to have won two Grand Slams titles since Federer and Nadal started monopolizing the majors in mid-2004, dividing 21 of the last 24 majors among themselves.

When asked how hard it's been to come along at the same time as Federer and Nadal, Djokovic said, "Believe me, it's not easy."

But Djokovic doesn't have to worry about Best Ever. He just has to be the best player Monday. Is that too much to ask?

"You never know," Djokovic smiled. "We'll see."

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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