Australian Open Men’s Final Preview Novak Djokovic Vs Rafa Nadal
Where to begin with these two meeting, for the 53rd time?
Djokovic leads 27-25, but perhaps the most significant number is the 18-7 Djokovic leads in the hard court head to head. But while that stat suggests in this match up Djokovic tends to have the upper hand on hard courts, it’s wise to leave the head to head to the side when considering who will emerge the winner in this their second Australian Open final, the first that classic five setter in 2012.
This unpredictability comes partly because Djokovic’s form has been hard to pin down and partly due to Nadal’s re-emergence as a healthy hard court slam contender.
That Nadal 2.0 restructured hard court game was a necessity after he had to retire during his US Open semi-final ’18 match with a knee injury and skip the rest off the season.
To prolong Nadal’s career and increase his chances of what’s left of it being as successful as possible, Nadal arrived in Melbourne brandishing a tinkered with serve and game.
The abbreviated and very effective serve, designed to protect the ankle he had surgery on in November last year, and the aggressive mindset which features Nadal stepping into the court and finishing points quickly has seen Nadal romp through the draw facing 17 break points and not dropping a set. He’s beaten James Duckworth, Matthew Ebden, Alex di Minaur, Tomas Berdych, Frances Tiafoe and Stefanos Tsitsipas to get there.
That rolecall is not filled with former slam champs and No.1s, but it’s a decent enough list and though none of them really tested him, they were never really allowed to either.
How Novak Djokovic plays this efficient and ruthless Nadal steamrolling his way through the draw like it was played on his beloved clay is one of the two big questions going into this match.
The other one is how Nadal’s new game stands up to its first real test.
Djokovic has not impressed as Nadal has in his run to the final. He’s beaten Mitchell Kreuger, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev, Kei Nishikori (ret, injured) and Lucas Pouille, but other than in his last match, it has been hard to assess his true form, and even versus Pouille, the Frenchman’s nerves and sub par performance still leave us none the wiser as to whether or not Djokovic can hit top gear.
Still, Djokovic can raise his game at accelerated levels and if he’s going to do it, it’ll be in the final, and he’ll need to in order to cope with Nadal on Sunday.
Djokovic won’t be phased by the Nadal serve- he reads the serve better than anyone and he might even enjoy the speedier delivery. However, he also won’t get as many top spin laden second serves as he used to enjoy from Nadal. Still, the Djokovic return is the best in the game and while he may not have an easy time of it with Nadal’s revamped serve, if you raise your serve, Djokovic will raise his return.
Regarding facing Nadal from the baseline, Djokovic will not get away with any short balls in this match so he’ll be on his baseline game early on, hitting deep and with angles, working himself into a rhythm to keep Nadal back and on the run- which is precisely what Nadal’s revamped game is designed to prevent, but that revamp may not be enough versus the player most likely to get you running and keep you running in the game.
In the forehand to backhand cross-court rallies, Djokovic will also be looking to be aggressive and hit winners, but if he’s on the defense, he can be aggressive, too, his movement and reach meaning he has the strength and depth of shot to extend the rallies and lure Nadal into over hitting, and while Nadal is hitting that forehand down the line well, Djokovic will ask the questions of just how well and when.
Which brings us to the second question- how Nadal is going to stand up to the test.
Expect Nadal to be precise and take risks and get his attacking game in form early on.
If he can’t execute his new game, then expect Nadal to go down swinging as well- he knows only too well how his hard court matches end with a Djokovic in form and he won’t want to revert back to those old patterns.
On the serve, the pressure will be on, but this is Nadal. Pressure is his friend. That serve already eases any worries he might have about aggravating his ankle so that’s one thing less to worry about.
If the serve is working well, Nadal can get plenty of points knocking off short returns for winners. That’ll conserve his energy for when things do get extended from the back of the court.
Returning Djokovic’s serve, one thing Nadal will have to go for it on any second returns or if he’s feeling cautious work the point to his forehand and unleash.
In tiebreaks, Nadal’s re-invigorated game will really come into play and he will have the advantage if he’s brave. But Djokovic will step up, too, which is why this match is so highly-anticipated.
Choosing a winner here is next to impossible. It’s made even more so by the faster conditions and the balls, which will slow down and fluff up more in the night time humidity, conditions respectively, factors which favor both players in their own ways- Nadal because it’s all about the speed for him right now and Djokovic because the longer the balls are kept in play, the fluffier they get and the harder it will be for Nadal to hit winners.
What really decides this match is who holds up best mentally on the big points and this rivalry- led 27-25 by Djokovic, 18-7 on hard courts- tends to swing back and forth whenever one or the other makes a big improvement in their game and brings that work into effect when it matters, an improvement usually inspired by the desire to defeat the other one.
We’ve already seen that inspiration this tournament with Djokovic playing his best match yet, defeating Lucas Pouille for the loss of four games, and then revealing his goal was to lose less games than the six Nadal dropped to Tsitsipas.
Yet it’s Nadal who has made the biggest improvements and adjustments to his game in the long-term, and to great effect, which is why I am picking him to win in four sets. (Five, and it’s Djokovic’s).
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