Rafael Nadal plays favorite as he pursues his 16th Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open

The door was opened for surprises in the U.S. Open men’s field when injuries took out Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka before the tournament began, and it opened wider when the late withdrawal of No. 2 seed Andy Murray shook up the bottom of the draw. The struggles of a subpar Roger Federer — who lost in the quarterfinals before he could have his first-ever Flushing Meadows matchup against Rafael Nadal — scrambled things again.

And so it was that Nadal, ranked No. 1 in the world, made it to Sunday’s final at Arthur Ashe Stadium without having to face a seeded player until he defeated No. 24 Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, and that South African Kevin Anderson made it through the bottom half of the draw and to the final as No. 32 in the world, the lowest-ranked U.S. Open finalist since the men’s rankings were launched in 1973.

“We are sort of accustomed to the few guys doing well,” Anderson said of the missing elite players after his 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 semifinal victory over No. 12 seed Pablo Carreno Busta put him into his first Grand Slam final. “It’s tough beating those guys because they have had so much experience at this level.”

Nadal, 31, is the decided favorite as he pursues his third U.S. Open title and 16th Grand Slam championship in his 23rd Grand Slam final. His course here hasn’t been entirely smooth but he has gradually raised his level of play. On Friday he said he awoke in a good frame of mind before he faced Del Potro. “I say to myself, ‘Today is the day that I’ll play. I need to play with the right energy and I need to increase the level of my game,’ and I know that,” Nadal said. “A lot of times I know that and it didn’t happen, but [on Friday] it happened.”

After switching tactics and changing the rhythm of his serve, he went on to earn a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Del Potro, who had upset Dominic Thiem and Federer. “Important victory against a great opponent,” Nadal said.

Nadal has a 4-0 edge over Anderson in head-to-head matchups, most recently prevailing in a round-of-16 win on clay this year in Barcelona, Spain. Anderson, who is a few weeks older than Nadal, has been slowed by a labrum tear in his hip and had to withdraw from the Australian Open and retire in the fourth round at the French Open. He opted to go through rehabilitation instead of surgery and said his body feels healthy now.

He knows he will need to be at full strength on Sunday against Nadal — and even that might not be enough. “Nadal’s, I think, one of the greatest competitors in sport, period. He’s an amazing fighter,” Anderson said. “He really controls the court well the few times I have played him.

“I really need to be dominant and control proceedings as much as possible because if you let him do it, it’s very difficult.”

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Martina Hingis of Switzerland and Jamie Murray of Great Britain won the mixed doubles title Saturday over Hao-Ching Chen of Tapei and Michael Venus of New Zealand 6-1, 4-6, 10-8. It was the seventh mixed doubles Grand Slam title for Hingis, who is a five-time Grand Slam singles champion. She will compete for her 13th women’s doubles Grand Slam title on Sunday, when she and Chan Yung-Jan of Tapei face the Czech duo of Lucie Hradecka and Katerina Siniakova.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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