- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- It's not a flattering thing to be treated like a human speed bump that is getting in the way of the men's U.S. Open final that nearly everyone wants to see Sunday between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny laughs and says, "'I'm ready to be the bad person" who topples Nadal on Saturday. And Novak Djokovic, the wisecracking Serb who will play Federer for the third straight year in the Open semifinals -- in 2007, they met in the final -- smiles and insists he's handling the undercard billing fine, too.
Besides, when Djokovic looks in his friends box, there's always the chance he'll see his father wearing his custom-made T-shirt with Novak's photo printed on the front, same as he did for Novak's quarterfinal victory over Gael Monfils.
"He's a proud father, what can I say?" Djokovic laughed when needled about it. "Me? I would never wear that shirt ... I don't like myself that much."
The elder Djokovic's gesture wasn't quite as desperate as putting his son's picture on a milk carton. But Novak -- who has yet to beat Federer at the U.S. Open -- did go on to talk more seriously about what it feels like to be a member of what could be called the lost generation in men's tennis.
Djokovic is ranked No. 3 in the world. He's won one Australian Open crown and he's been close to winning other Grand Slam tournaments the past three or four years. He's won 17 career titles overall. But like Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and so many other recent Top 10 players, Nadal and Federer are always the impassable roadblocks they find waiting at the end of nearly every major tournament.
When Djokovic says he has no problems with that -- "I like being under the radar" -- what goes unsaid is he and his contemporaries have little choice. They've been shoved there.
Nadal and Federer have hoarded an amazing 21 of the past 24 Grand Slam titles. Each is playing for something very important this weekend.
Nadal is chasing history. And Federer is chasing Nadal.
Nadal, the top-ranked player in the world, is still seeking his first U.S. Open title. If the 24-year-old Spaniard gets it, he would become only the seventh player ever to complete a career sweep of the Grand Slam tournaments. He's already won the Australian once, the French Open five times and Wimbledon twice. It would also give him three of the four majors this year.
Hard court never used to be Nadal's best surface. But unlike other summers when Nadal played a heavy schedule and came to New York feeling "mentally destroyed" (2008) or physically impaired because "I broke my abdominal" (2009), Nadal says he now feels fresh. His efficient two-hour, 22-minute dismissal of his dangerous, hard-hitting countryman Fernando Verdasco on Thursday night in the swirling wind was his most impressive win of the tournament. He's lost just one service game the entire tournament. Like Federer, he has yet to drop a set.
"I know how important the U.S. Open is for me now," Nadal said Thursday.
Federer, who's ranked No. 2, is seeking his sixth U.S. Open title. After early quarterfinal exits (for him) at both the French Open and Wimbledon, he's been resurgent in the past month. He won only his second title of the year in Cincinnati just before coming to New York, and he now has a chance to match Nadal with two Slam titles apiece this year.
If the 29-year-old Federer can do that, it would temporarily quiet the talk that his career is in rapid decline. The Swiss star is also battling the perception that he can no longer beat Nadal, who has a 14-7 record in their head-to-head matches. But you can tell Federer's confidence is high. It's been almost comical to hear how highly complimentary Federer has been about, well, Federer as the Open has gone on, volunteering how he's "very good" at playing in the wind, patting himself on the back for being "great" at having so many serve options, and so on.
"I'm happy with the way I'm playing," Federer has said again and again.
For Djokovic, running into Federer at the top of his game is nothing new. In addition to losing to him in the Open semis/final the past three years, Djokovic is only 5-10 against Federer in his career. Still -- wisely or not -- Djokovic says he doesn't intend to change much against Federer on Saturday. "No secrets," he said. He added he just hopes to play better than him and block out everything else.
"I don't want to think about those losses in the last three years, which were really, really close in all those matches," Djokovic said. "Physically, I feel better than I did last year. I feel stronger, faster on the court. The conditions are quite different, so let's see, you know?"
Federer said he doesn't plan to change a thing for Djokovic, either. Then again, why would he?
"For the last three or four years he's gone through me here," Federer said, "and he hasn't been able to get it done."
Join the club.
Novak Djokovic and Mikhail Youzhny look to play spoilers at U.S. Open.