If you’re familiar with Rafael Nadal’s history of injury, hard luck and heartbreak at the Australian Open, you have the right to think the tournament owes him one.
Nadal has put himself in a position to collect on that debt these past few weeks in Melbourne, but in order to accomplish that, he will have to master top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final.
The Serbian star is Nadal’s nemesis. But he’s also a man whose history at the Australian Open has been as charmed as Nadal’s has been bedeviled.
The most recent meeting of these two men at this tournament remains the perfect symbol of the contrast in their fortunes. That match in 2012 is on everyone’s short list for greatest match of all time. It ended 7-5 in the fifth set, after 5 hours and 53 minutes, with Djokovic pounding his chest King Kong style, howling in triumph as Nadal sat slumped in his chair, sweat still dripping from his long hair, gazing toward Antarctica.
The first thought that comes to mind is, can it happen again?
Judging by the intention with which both men are playing, you bet it can. In addition to ripping through their respective draws, Djokovic and No. 2 Nadal surpassed expectations in the semifinals, allowing a grand total of just 10 games to their brace of opponents. Djokovic allowed his semifinal opponent, Lucas Pouille, two fewer games (4) than Nadal did against Kei Nishikori, but then Nadal raced through the draw without dropping a set. Djokovic has spent 11 hours, 59 minutes on the court in his six matches, 11 fewer than Nadal. But Djokovic had the benefit of a withdrawal … it goes on like that. You get the picture. Both men are on point.
The stats might point toward a knock-down, drag-out, but the reality is that these men are a fair amount older than when they played that 2012 marathon. Nadal is 32, Djokovic 31, both hard-used and interested in winning in less effortful ways. Neither man desires another war of attrition.
“Of course, the [Grand Slam final against Nadal] that stands out was the finals of almost six hours in 2012,” Djokovic told reporters after cruising through his semifinal in less than an hour and a half. “Hopefully we don’t go that long this time. But I’m sure we’re going to have a good finals.”
Nadal has the best of all reasons to avoid a long match. He’s suffered so many injuries in recent years that his default position — grinding opponents into oblivion — might not be sustainable anymore. In Australia, he’s been serving with more sting, ending points quicker, generally showing more aggression.
ATP analyst Craig O’Shannessy, who advises Djokovic, noted that in 2017 (when Nadal last made the final), 14 percent of the Spaniard’s rallies lasted for nine or more shots; this year, it’s just 8 percent. More impressively, there’s been a 9 percent increase (up to 71 percent) in the number of Nadal rallies that last only 0-4 shots. That’s a hefty number of points.
But Nadal bridles at the suggestion that he’s changed his game, insisting he’s playing aggressively because he’s playing well — not the other way around.
“I am not hitting winners every ball,” Nadal said. “But I play all the shots with a goal. There is not a better way to be aggressive than hit every shot with the goal to create damage on the opponent. That was my goal during all the career. Today I can do that damage little bit earlier than before because during this event I have been serving great.”
Count Djokovic among those who have noticed.
“I think [Nadal] managed to have a lot of success with the shorter points because of the serve,” Djokovic said. “He’s backing his first shot up with that great serve, saving energy, and then he can go for more in the return game.”
Lest he seems too carried away, Djokovic was quick to add, “At the same time, it’s quite different playing against me.”
Djokovic is, by consensus, the best returner in the game. His ability to deal with the improved Nadal serve might be the most critical component in the match. Djokovic makes it hard to act on aggressive impulses, as Pouille testified after the semis.
“I didn’t have time to put a strategy in the match,” the Frenchman said. “The strategy was to be aggressive, try to be the one who’s leading the point. But when [Djokovic] playing just 10 centimeters (almost four inches) from the baseline all the time, it’s tough to do it. Novak is playing like really, really fast, really low.”
Djokovic is the odds-on favorite going into this match, but narrowly. He leads the series 27-25 and has won eight of their past 10 meetings. That includes another epic encounter, the 10-8 Wimbledon semifinal this past July that put the capstone on Djokovic’s recent comeback.
But never underestimate karma. Djokovic has flourished to a remarkable extent in Melbourne; he’s 6-0 in finals. Nadal has won this title just once, but he’s suffered often. Nadal was out with injury in 2013 (the year after his marathon final with Djokovic), but back in the championship match against first-time Grand Slam finalist Stan Wawrinka in 2014. Nadal’s back inexplicably and unexpectedly locked up that Sunday, helping Wawrinka to the win. And let’s not forget Nadal was up a break on Roger Federer in the fifth set in the final two years ago before squandering the lead and falling.
It’s been that way for Nadal at the “Happy Slam.” It can’t go on. As well as Djokovic is playing, it’s hard to imagine Nadal’s hopes being crushed yet again in Melbourne.