- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- If Rafael Nadal's knees were a building, they would probably be condemned and written off as an insurance loss.
After he crashed out of the second round at Wimbledon a year ago, Nadal missed seven months of ATP World Tour action, including the final major of 2012 and the first of 2013.
His ranking fell to No. 5, the lowest in eight years.
When Rafa returned in February, on the quaint clay-court circuit in South America, no one -- even the ruthlessly optimistic Nadal -- imagined he would return to No. 1 before the season ended. Limping away on those creaky knees, he left this year's Wimbledon in the first round, dialing down expectations even further.
Well, suddenly that No. 1 ranking looks like a very good possibility.
On a glorious Saturday afternoon and evening at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Nadal defeated Richard Gasquet for the 11th time in as many meetings. The result was a predictable 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2 -- and it was predictably anticlimactic with respect to the gut-wrenching epic that had transpired earlier at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
No. 2 seed Nadal next faces No. 1 Djokovic in Monday's final.
"It's always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now," Djokovic said of facing Nadal. "I mean, he's the ultimate competitor out there. He's fighting for every ball, and he's playing probably the best tennis that he ever played on hard courts."
If Nadal wins -- and, even with a full day off, that brutal semifinal match significantly increases his chances -- he will find himself only 120 points behind Djokovic and will hold a commanding lead in the Race to London. Monday's winner will have won two of the season's majors, giving the US Open champion the inside track on Player of the Year honors.
Nadal leads the career head-to-head 21-15 and is 7-3 versus Djokovic in majors. But if you subtract his six losses on the clay at Roland Garros, Djokovic has a 3-1 advantage with the two splitting at the US Open; Nadal won the 2010 final in four sets, and Djokovic returned the favor a year later.
"Just amazing," Nadal said in his on-court interview. "You know after what happened last year to have a chance to play the final Monday is just dream for me."
This is how deliberate Nadal was against Gasquet: He broke his first service game in each set. He created only three break points and won them all. Gasquet ended the last two sets with double faults.
Nadal has now won 26 of 30 sets against the stylish Frenchman, including 17 in a row.
Rafa has won all 21 of his matches on hard courts this season, a personal best. His overall record of 59-3 is an ATP World Tour best and seems destined to conclude as one of the great seasons in history. For context, consider Roger Federer's three seasons from 2004-06: 74-6, 81-4, 92-5.
How hot is Rafa? This is his 13th tournament of the year, and he's reached 12 finals. The US Open would be title No. 10.
Nadal's serve has never been one of his leading weapons, but he won his only title here three years ago by ratcheting up the speed and collecting the requisite free points that success in this environment demands. Serving at 2-1 in the second set, Nadal had won all 73 of his service games and had amassed a streak of 88 going back to Cincinnati. But Gasquet, dogged in the breezy conditions, finally broke through -- on the ninth break point against Nadal's serve here in six matches -- to force the set back on serve.
Serving at 4-3 in the second set, Nadal faced two more break points. He eliminated the first with an ace and the second with another unreturnable serve. Rafa dominated the tiebreaker, winning seven of eight points. Gasquet began the session with his first double fault of the match and closed it with his second.
Historically, when Nadal is serving this well, he wins the tournament. Last year's French Open, the 2010 US Open and Wimbledons 2008 and 2010 are examples.
Nadal, 27, will be looking for his 13th Grand Slam singles title Monday, which would break a tie with Roy Emerson and vault him alone into the third overall spot behind Roger Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14).
Gasquet was playing in only the second major semifinal of his career and, in the critical moments, seemed to lack the belief necessary to reach the next level.
Confidence is Rafa's strongest suit. Despite the obstacles his knees present, he has made at least three dramatic comebacks in a span of four years.
"Seems like after all the things that happened to me," Nadal said before the tournament, "it seems like it's strange somebody can think strange that I will repeat the same. But I think nobody of my family, nobody of my team who is close to me seven months ago thought about comeback like this."
Djokovic, too, has been impressed.
"He hasn't lost a match on hard court this year, and we all knew that over the course of last six, seven, eight years, hard court hasn't been his favorite surface," he said. "He has got injuries, many injuries on this surface, but now he looks fit. He lost three matches this year.
"With no doubt he's the best player in the moment this year, no question about it. I have played him already here twice in the finals. I know what I need to do."
2dAnna Katherine Clemmons