NEW YORK (AP) — Rafael Nadal saved three break points, then went on to win a riveting third set over Novak Djokovic and move one set away from his second U.S. Open championship.
After top-seeded Djokovic hit the final shot long to close out the 61-minute set Monday night, Nadal bent down near the baseline and pumped his fist repeatedly.
Second-seeded Nadal led 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 after three, and just as each set was closer than the last, the quality of play ramped up as nightfall descended on Arthur Ashe Stadium. The set included 13 points that lasted 10 shots or longer.
Serving at 4-all in the third set, Nadal fell behind 0-40, slipping and falling after the second point while trying to go after a Djokovic forehand in the corner. But on the verge of losing the game, Nadal came up with a big forehand winner, then took a point on a 22-shot rally and hit his first ace of the match — 125 mph down the middle.
Leading 5-4, Nadal broke Djokovic's serve to move one set away from winning his 13th major.
This marks the 37th meeting between the men — the most between two opponents in the Open era. It's also their third U.S. Open final; Nadal won in 2010 and Djokovic in 2011. Both those matches went four sets and Nadal was trying to close out another four-setter.
Djokovic opened the Grand Slam season with the title in Australia, while Nadal won his eighth French Open title in June.
Djokovic is coming off a five-set win over Stanislas Wawrinka in a semifinal that took 4 hours, 9 minutes. He was in a similar situation in the Wimbledon final — playing Andy Murray two days after a five-set win in the semis. That day, in 80-degree weather, Djokovic looked tired and tried to end points early in what turned out to be a three-set loss to Murray.
The temperature for the U.S. Open final was 71 with a slight breeze kicking up as shadows enveloped the court. Nadal was playing higher percentage tennis. He had only 17 unforced errors to 42 for Djokovic through three sets, while Djokovic had 38 winners to 20 for Nadal.
Nadal came in a perfect 21-0 on hard court this year, while Djokovic has more wins than anyone on the surface, with 31.