After 13 days, it’s really no surprise we have Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal left at the Australian Open. The two last played Down Under in a memorable, memorizing 5-hour, 53-minute epic in 2012 that will live on as one of the all-time great finals. Tomorrow, I just don’t think we’ll see a sequel because seven years later, I don’t think either player could make it that long without certain death.
So Sunday I expect a shorter, less exhausting match. And I say that based on Nadal’s new serve which has helped him shorten points throughout the fortnight.
And I just don’t feel like Djokovic has the same stamina either. But we’ll see. So to the matchup:
Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal
In their 53rd meeting, there’s not a lot to pick and choose at this point. There are no secrets, no hidden tricks between the two who first played way back at the 2006 French Open quarterfinals.
These two know each other’s games extremely well, as do most tennis fans.
Djokovic leads their head-to-head 27-25 but the key figure for me is Novak has won nine of their last 10 in hardcourt finals, losing only in the 2013 US Open title match. And when I checked last, the Australian Open is on hardcourts! It’s not clay, not grass, it’s cement which is Rafa’s least favorite surface. We know that.
But credit to Nadal, after very poor hardcourt season last year – you’ve seen all the stats with the retirements and the withdrawals – he looks excellent this week, especially off the serve.
Rafa has really been pounding that serve like we haven’t seen in years and it’s paying off. He’s getting earlier looks at forehand putaways which has freed up his groundstrokes and his return game. As he joked, he’s not quite Roger Federer on the serve, but guess what, he’s getting there. Progress is being made, it’s just a question of his body willing. And so far so good.
Nadal hasn’t dropped a set and he’s basically blown everyone away these last two weeks.
Meanwhile, Djokovic has been cruising along. Denis Shapovalov stole a set late and incredibly Daniil Medvedev came from 4-1 down to do the same. Otherwise, Djokovic has been fairly clean all tournament.
Medvedev made him work which rightly should give Nadal fans hope for tomorrow.
And what’s nice is both guys should come in 100% fresh and I would think injury free. I know Rafa had a thigh issue to start the year and recently was spotted with some worrisome-looking tape on his abs, but did he look hampered in any way Thursday night against Stefanos Tsitsipas? No!
So both are ready and primed for more history – Rafa on the brink of a second Career Slam which would put him over Federer in my mind, and Djokovic would move past Pete Sampras all alone in third on the all-time men’s Slam leaderboard.
As for the match, I’ve spoke highly of Nadal’s serve, but here’s the problem, he’s not played against any real quality returners. Tomas Berdych? Alex De Minaur? I just don’t know.
Djokovic, of course, is among the best if not the best. So tomorrow we are going to find out just how good Nadal’s new serve really is. And my guess is it will be better but still not good enough to beat Djokovic on a hardcourt.
When you look at the draw, Nadal has played six guys he should have beaten. Six straight and really I don’t think anyone had him losing any of those matches. Maybe a set here or there, but not the match. So while he looked awesome in those wins, I take them with a little grain of salt.
Djokovic is a totally different beast than those we’ve seen Nadal play (and yes, you can make the argument for Djokovic and his opponents), and I just think Djokovic is in such a groove right now. He won at Wimbledon, which I think is Novak’s worst surface, he took the US Open and he loves playing in Melbourne. It’s his best and most successful of the Slams – he’s never lost once he makes the semifinals.
And I feel like it’s his time. Nadal can’t come back after missing 3-4 months and win a hardcourt Slam let alone a hardcourt event! That hasn’t been his history.
So as I said, I expect the points to be quicker but we’ll still get that occasional breathless 1,452-shot rally, and in the end Djokovic toughs him out.
The Pick: Djokovic in 4
I wrestled with this pick a lot over the last 24 hours, and I do think we just haven’t seen Nadal face a quality returner. Sunday night in Melbourne we will and I expect Djokovic to do his thing and work his backhand to get Rafa out of position something no one has been able to do yet – I guess Berdych took it to him a bit in that third set.
That said, if Rafa’s humming on his serve and giving Djokovic trouble, than watch out tennis world, Rafa’s going to be unstoppable. And, who knows, maybe that happens.
But for now I’ll stay with my original pick of Djokovic. Either way, with Nadal and Djokovic healthy again it sets up for a good first part of the year.
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