By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Move over John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, the new greatest rivalry in tennis will be on display at Arthur Ashe Stadium when world number one Novak Djokovic meets number two Rafa Nadal for the U.S. Open title on Monday.
Djokovic and Nadal, who have been dominant over the last 15 slams, will be meeting for the 37th time in the championship showdown, surpassing McEnroe and Lendl for the most clashes since tennis turned professional 45 years ago.
A high intensity, high energy, ball-slugging battle should be in the offing between the Spaniard and the Serb, who have staged thrilling five-setters this year in the French Open semi-finals and last year for the Australian Open title.
Asked if he enjoyed playing against Djokovic, Nadal answered with refreshing honesty.
"I prefer to play against another one," he said with a smile. "But is what it is.
"Talking about a final, I want to play against a player that I have more chances to win. But I played against him a lot of times. Always we played very exciting matches."
Nadal beat Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth set of their semi-final on his way to winning his eighth French Open and 12th career grand slam title.
Djokovic won their six-hour war in the 2012 Australian Open final and has since added a third Australian title in a row to take his grand slam haul to six.
The rivalry between Roger Federer and Nadal had been the foremost grudge game in the sport in recent years, but with the Swiss grand slam king fading from dominance, Djokovic-Nadal has risen to hottest in tennis.
Nadal leads the series 21-15 and has won five of the last six, but his overall edge was largely built in the first half of the rivalry when he won 14 of their first 18 matches.
The Spaniard, who missed the U.S. Open last year after being sidelined for seven months by a knee injury, has come back with a brilliant 2013 campaign.
After skipping the season's first slam, the Australian Open won by Djokovic, Nadal has registered nine tournament victories and been perfect this season on hard courts, posting a 21-0 mark on the surface within a tour-best match record of 59-3.
"It's always the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport now," Djokovic said about facing Nadal. "He's the ultimate competitor out there. He fights for every ball and he's playing probably the best tennis that he ever played on hard courts.
"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 lost three matches this year. With no doubt, he's the best player in the moment this year, no question about it."
Their Flushing Meadows finals clash will be a rubber match of sorts for Djokovic and Nadal.
The second-seeded Nadal won his only U.S. Open in 2010 against Djokovic. The top-seeded Serb won his only U.S. title the next year against the Spaniard. Monday's winner will be the year's only two-time slam champion of 2013.
The showdown will mark the 12th time in the past 15 grand slams dating back to the 2010 French Open that either Djokovic or Nadal will claim the slam title, with Nadal having won six and Djokovic five during the stretch.
The marquee match-up features players with 18 grand slam titles between them, the most in a U.S. Open final since Pete Sampras (13) beat Andre Agassi (7) for the 2002 crown.
Nadal, 27, expects a big battle.
"If both of us are playing at very good level, the match becomes great because we play long rallies, we bring our game to the limit, and becomes a very difficult match for both of us."
"When you are involved in these kind of matches, you feel special," the Spaniard said. "Is true we already play a lot of important matches for our career, so that makes that confrontation special."
The 26-year-old Djokovic, competing in his third major final of the season and fourth successive U.S. Open final, was not cowed by Nadal's recent run of success.
"He's very confident, but you know, I know how to play him. Hard court is my most successful surface. I have played him already here twice in the finals. I know what I need to do."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)