Novak Djokovic shines brightly

NEW YORK -- This time last year, more than nine months into the season, Novak Djokovic had lost all of two matches.

He started 43-0, but fell to Roger Federer in the semifinals at Roland Garros. And then there was a wobble in Cincinnati, where he lost in the final to Andy Murray. Still, coming into the U.S. Open, Djokovic had won nine titles and compiled a staggering record of 64-2.

The 25-year-old Serb was the winner here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and -- like Federer in 2004 and 2006-07 and Rafael Nadal last year -- won three of four majors and produced one of tennis' greatest seasons ever.

So what's been the problem in 2012? Only the massive shadow Djokovic cast a year ago.

The defending champion is back in the final again after Sunday's 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory over No. 4 seed David Ferrer. With a win Monday afternoon against Murray, Djokovic likely will be the ATP World Tour's Player of the Year.

He'll be playing in his third consecutive U.S. Open final.

"Well, in life you have ups and downs," Djokovic said, "so I wasn't really surprised with, if you want to call it a bit less success in 2012. It's really hard to expect that I can win every single match that I play in six months. This maybe happens once in your lifetime.

"I tried to take the best out of that experience, tried to use if it my own favor in a way that it brings me confidence knowing that I can play that well in different surfaces. So regardless of the comparison with these two years, I still think it's been a fantastic year for me."

Sunday, of course, is usually the day of the men's final, but weather intervened at the U.S. Open, as it almost always has in recent years. The radar on Saturday suggested there was a four- or five-hour window between storm systems, but USTA officials declined to play both semifinals simultaneously. When Murray and Tomas Berdych needed nearly four hours to complete the first, Djokovic and Ferrer were destined to play the second over two days.

Maybe that's why Djokovic was in such a foul mood Saturday when he walked onto the court at Ashe and felt the force of the 25-30 mph winds. He lost five of the first seven games, and when the stadium was evacuated for a tornado warning, he left with a scowl on his face.

Sunday was completely different. The sun was out, the oppressive humidity was gone and it felt like a lovely fall day. Djokovic, too, had a sunny disposition.

"We were all praying for less wind today," he said. "I think he handled the wind much better than I did. I came into today as a different player."

After Ferrer served out the first set in a manner of minutes, Djokovic went to work. He won the first five games of the second set but needed a taut, four-deuce game to close the deal. Djokovic's court coverage was spectacular and his backhand, if possible, was better. An unreturnable serve down the middle leveled the match, but it already felt over.

Sliding on these hard courts like no one else, Djokovic overwhelmed Ferrer. In the final three sets, he converted six of eight break points. In the last two sets, Djokovic won 27 of 30 first-serve points.

"It's definitely huge to get through this match," Djokovic said. "He's a great competitor. He's one of the fittest guys on tour. He never gives up."

Three different men have won the three majors this year; Djokovic, who has won 60 of 70 matches, is the only one with a chance to win two. Moreover, he's won the past three Grand Slam singles titles on hard courts.

The last time Djokovic met Murray in a major was nine months ago in the semifinals of the Australian Open. Djokovic won 7-5 in the fifth set in a stirring match that went 10 minutes short of five hours.

"I don't think there is any clear favorite," Djokovic said. "He's looking for his first Grand Slam. I'm sure he's going to be very motivated."

No more, rest assured, than Novak Djokovic.