Amongst the greatest moments in the history of tennis features a certain break in tradition.
It came during the trophy ceremony after the final of the men’s singles event at the Australian Open in 2012. Chairs were brought in for the finalists, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who till that point had been grimacing with pain and fatigue, stretching their legs to kill off any sign of cramps, and Nadal even leaning on the net – all happening during the customary speeches that precede the players’ own.
Djokovic and Nadal had given the sport one of its most exhausting and till date, the longest ever final at a Grand Slam, clocking five hours and 53 minutes – the score 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7(5), 7–5 to the Serb.
On Friday night at the Rod Laver Arena, memories of that match, the 30th encounter between the pair, came rushing back, as Djokovic dismantled Lucas Pouille to book a place in the final. On Sunday, the two will cross swords for the first time in Melbourne since the epic seven years ago.
“First of all,” Djokovic joked, “I would definitely want to buy a ticket for the match.”
It has all the makings of another attritional Nadal-Djokovic classic. When they played each other, back in 2012, Djokovic was the World No 1 and Nadal a spot behind. Both players were in prime fitness, young in their careers and hungry for the titles that they would conquer in years to come.
They are older, yes, but it’s not too different now.
Djokovic at 31 is at the top of the ATP charts and Nadal, 32, is second in the world. That hunger for victory still burns bright. And for their 53rd encounter – more than any other in tennis history – they come with their bodies reconstructed from injury to the point that they could rival the Nadal and Djokovic that played in that 2012 final.
Djokovic’s rise since that elbow injury in 2017 has been tremendous. He bowed out of the Australian Open in the fourth round last year, underwent elbow surgery, and by July, was showing glimpses of being his old dominant self.
Crucial to that comeback was another clash against Nadal, in the semi-final at Wimbledon. The Serbian won that clash 6–4, 3–6, 7–6(9), 3–6, 10–8 in only the second time they played for over five hours.
“That was the match that has mentally turned things around for me mostly, I feel like,” Djokovic said after his semi-final on Friday. “Winning against Nadal 10-8 in the fifth set, that has catapulted me I think mentally to a different, more confident self. It has allowed me to then excel in the months to come after that.”
He beat Kevin Anderson a day later to win his fourth Wimbledon title, and over a month later, captured his 14th Grand Slam title at the US Open.
And he’s stretched that domination in Melbourne as well. Djokovic has dropped one set apiece to Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev in the third and fourth round respectively. In the semi-final though, against Pouille, Djokovic played a scintillating brand of tennis to storm through in 83 minutes with a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 scoreline.
Asked by Jim Courier if he could imagine himself reaching this stage 12 months after he lost to Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open, Djokovic replied: “Yes – but it was highly unlikely 12 months ago that I would be where I am today a year later.
“I’ve said before that I always had belief in myself, and self-belief always prevails. There was always part of me, and still is, that believed that I can play this way. That’s the key – always relying on your qualities and trusting the process will turn out the way you want it to.”
Djokovic has a record six titles at the Australian Open, and hasn’t ever lost a final in Melbourne.
Nadal claimed the title in 2009, but has lost three Australian Open finals since. The Spaniard, however, will be glad to be in the summit clash after starting his tournament under the cloud of doubt. The 17-time major winner had not played a competitive match since retiring in the semi-final of the US Open back in September.
In the interim, he had to fix a problem with his knee and also underwent ankle surgery. But the recovery phase meant that he had to skip the season opener in Brisbane. When he did however, get onto court at Melbourne, there was a fresh new look about his playing style.
The service action had changed, subtly, but tellingly. He had started to shift his weight on the back leg during the service action which has also become more fluid. The results have given him a bigger serve which have allowed him to finish off 70 percent of his points within four shots.
The earlier Nadal would be ready to grind, but this new one is looking for the first strike. Remarkably, without any competitive matches since September, he’s reached the final without dropping a single set. He has been broken only twice, both in the first round.
En route the final, Nadal has demolished the challenge of Alex de Minaur, Tomas Berdych, Frances Tiafoe, and in the semi-final, the high-flying Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas with a merciless 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 scoreline.
“To start the season like this, when a few weeks ago I was in Brisbane, having to take a very tough decision for me not to play there,” Nadal said after the semifinal. “In that moment it was difficult for me to imagine being in this position today.”
On Sunday the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry will add a 53rd chapter. Every match has been a spectacle of two contemporaries putting their all into winning. Thoughts of their last encounter on Australian soil have been reverberating with the hope of an encore. Surely, the two maestros of tennis will comply.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2019 13:51:26 IST