-- NEW YORK -- Top-ranked Novak Djokovic should've gone to sleep Friday night in New York feeling like the luckiest man in tennis. It's as if someone slipped a horseshoe in his racket bag. Before this US Open, he was "skeptical" -- his word -- that he could survive some nagging injuries and self-doubt well enough to do well here. Then he got to Flushing Meadows and had a blessedly less taxing trip through this tournament that, for him, has featured a little of the bizarre and a lot of luck on the way to Sunday's final.
It takes seven winning rounds to capture a tennis major. Through his first six matches, two of Djokovic's opponents had to retire with injury, a third withdrew before a ball was struck, and in Friday's semifinals, a fourth rival, Frenchman Gael Monfils, was hit with a massive brain cramp.
Figuratively speaking, of course.
Monfils -- who began the day with an 0-12 career record against Djokovic -- didn't see it that way, despite the heavy criticism he faced after the match for not putting out an acceptable effort at times by tapping shots back, standing at odd positions on the court and even egging the crowd on when it finally started to boo him for the desultory way he was playing. When he finally started cracking off blistering forehand winners and running down balls few players can reach to win the third set, the amplitude of his game only made his early tactics seem worse. Where in the hell had this been all day?
Djokovic eventually won 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to move into his seventh career US Open final -- this time opposite third-seeded Stan Wawrinka, a 4-6, 7-4, 6-4, 6-2 winner over Kei Nishikori of Japan -- but not before ripping open his shirt in frustration at one point. He admitted he was mad he let Monfils' rope-a-dope tactics creep briefly into his head on a brutally humid 90-degree afternoon match that left both players staggering at times from the heat. Djokovic felt he let the match drag on longer than he should have.
Asked how he overcame the frustration, Djokovic joked, "I got another t-shirt from my bag. And already I felt better."
Things should return to some semblance of normal for Djokovic in Sunday's final now that Wawrinka -- who brazenly carries a racket bag embroidered with the words "Stan the Man" -- stands between him and his third career US Open title. Wawrinka has won the past 10 finals he's been in.
If Djokovic buckles at all mentally, as he did against Monfils, Wawrinka has the game and the guts capitalize on it.
Wawrinka was like a circling shark Friday in his evening when he saw Nishikori jackknife at the waist from fatigue and dig at his cramping legs. Nishikori had trying to ride out the pain that had come from spending far too many tournament hours on court.
The Swiss star likes to strut around and point to his temple to compliment himself for how mentally strong he is during matches, and he's earned the right. In this tournament alone, he's played a staggering 23 sets and 237 games. Djokovic, meanwhile, has played only 13 sets and a total of 118 games, putting him on a record pace for fewest sets and games in an Open era major that featured a 128-man draw and best-of-five-set matches.
Nishikori tried hard to make his second US Open final and become the first Asian-born man to win a Grand Slam title. Unlike Monfils, he hustled from start to finish. But he was also coming off a grueling five-set upset of Andy Murray just two days earlier, and the toll began to show by the third set Friday. This was never more evident than when Nishikori hit a power-sapped 77 mph first serve in the third set.
Right about then, it was only natural to wonder what ran through the mind of Michael Chang, Nishikori's coach, who once famously served underhand against big bad Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open quarterfinals at the age of 17.
The pain never got quite that debilitating for Nishikori. But the 31-year-old Wawrinka -- except for couple blips -- seemed to be running downhill once Nishikori began to look distressed.
Veteran that he is, Wawrinka began rubbing it in, hoping to make Nishikori feel worse. He let Nishikori know he knew he was fading by loudly celebrating big shots or service breaks. At one point, Wawrinka even stared at Nishikori and pointed to his own legs as if to say he could run all night.
"I know I can last for three, four, five hours [and] I have to make them suffer," Wawrinka said, when asked about the gesture. "You have to show you are not going to let down. You are going to push him, push him, push him."
It was a variation of the mind-game ploys that Monfils hoped to pull off against Djokovic, but couldn't sustain.
Now? Sunday's final should be a good one. Tennis is always a mental test as much as a chess match, and Djokovic and Wawrinka are terrific at both. As Djokovic himself volunteered Friday, Wawrinka beat him in the final of the 2015 French Open and quarterfinals of the 2014 Australian Open, "So both of these Grand Slam trophies that he has, he won against me on the way."
Wawrinka knows that, too.
Come Sunday's final, the mind games begin anew.