About the only soul who seems surprised that Rafael Nadal has advanced to tomorrow night's U.S. Open men's championship final appears to be Nadal himself.
For two weeks, he has cautioned against foregone conclusions. And Saturday night, after dispensing with No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet in a semifinal, 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2, Nadal called it "just amazing" to be back in the title match.
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He will play top-seeded Novak Djokovic, with whom Nadal now has the longest-running head-to-head rivalry in men's tennis during the open era, which dates to 1968. They will be dueling for a 37th time, more than Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe (36), more than Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg (35) or Lendl and Jimmy Connors (35), more than Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (34) or McEnroe and Connors (34).
Because he missed last year with knee tendinitis that took him away from the pro tour for seven months, Nadal repeatedly has insisted that his greatest satisfaction now comes from being healthy and able to compete.
But his startling record since his return in February -- winning nine of 12 tournaments and making the finals in all but one -- has much of the tennis community again considering his pursuit of Roger Federer's record of 17 major-tournament titles.
Federer, at 31, has won only one of the last 15 Grand Slam events. Nadal, 27, has 12 major titles.
"Not everything is about Grand Slams," said Nadal of Spain. "Not all the tennis depends on Grand Slams. We have to look not only at the Slams to see how the season goes.
"For sure, being in the final of U.S. Open makes me happy, but what really makes me happy is to be competitive in every tournament I'm playing. To have the chance to win every time."
So, while Belgium's Steve Darcis, the world's 135th-ranked player, pulled a first-round shocker against Nadal at Wimbledon, Darcis was not entered in the Open and Nadal has sailed through the bracket by losing only one set -- and that in a tiebreaker -- to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the fourth round.
Nadal now has won 21 consecutive matches on hard court, once thought to be his most difficult surface.
Against Gasquet, Nadal experienced only a slight wobble in the second set. "I had not a bad match," said Gasquet of France, in only his second Slam semifinal and first since Wimbledon 2007. "But it was three sets love, so at the end he was the best.
"I think in the second, if I could do a break and serve for the set . . . We will never know."
Instead, Gasquet double-faulted to start the second-set tiebreaker and, quickly faced with set point at 1-6, double-faulted again. He also double-faulted on match point.
"I think I played a solid first set," Nadal said. "That's very important. Then in the second one, I had the match under control, everything changes, a few games I didn't play that well. Very important to come back and I played a great tiebreaker."
Tennis people were not shocked.