Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has mowed down his opponents over 6 matches. While winning 18 of 18 sets, gives Nadal an edge on form, the two sets Djokovic dropped should be of no hindrance to his chances in the final as Djokovic got a physically easy quarterfinal and looked to be in peak form after pulverizing his way through the semifinal round.
What does Djokovic Need to Do to Win?
Djokovic needs to take the ball early. Rafael Nadal is a tremendous athlete and appears to be in peak health. Nadal uses his athleticism to create a scenario in which he is hitting the ball extremely hard and with extreme spins while also giving himself a large margin of error. This leads to what Tsitsipas called a talent for making people play poorly. Andre Agassi once said, “Swinging hard used to be a risk in tennis.” Nadal seems to have the reward of swinging hard combined with the reward of a high margin for error. He combines this approach with court-positioning that allows him to get many returns and regular rallying balls into play. The one weakness this approach has is that it means ceding a lot of real estate on the court. Novak Djokovic has successfully taken advantage of court positioning vs. Nadal. Davydenko, a lesser player to Djokovic, also hugged the baseline with some success versus Rafael Nadal. Djokovic grabbing a court positioning advantage does not ensure victory, but if Nole slips far behind the baseline with any frequency he will almost certainly lose.
Djokovic also has to serve well. Assuming he returns well, Djokovic placing his serve in a manner that gives him control of many of Nadal’s return efforts is important. If Rafa has to work harder to hold than Djokovic does, this could tip the match over a long period of time.
Finally, Djokovic has to mentally be ready for another 5 or 6-hour war as he was in the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal round or the 2012 Australian Open final. Djokovic failed to break Nadal at 0-40 and one set all in the 2013 US Open final. That seemed to get him slightly agitated and Nadal ran away with the remaining 1.5 sets.
What does Nadal Need to Do to Win?
Nadal needs to hit the ball with authority. This could push Djokovic backward. That would mean both players are ceding some court positioning instead of just Nadal.
Nadal needs to take a few chances when returning serve. Rafael Nadal cannot return on every occasion as though this is a clay court match. Nadal has won 4 hard court majors so he clearly knows how to play on this surface. Still, Djokovic has won 9 hard court majors. Further, Nadal is 1-3 in Australian Open finals while Djokovic is 6-0. Nadal has to have unwavering confidence in his hard court game rather than predictably spitting back returns and leaving Djokovic rallies to control.
Finally, Nadal has to keep serving with authority. Nadal has been serving quite well in Melbourne. Djokovic is the best returner in the game. If Nadal gets some free points and easy forehand winners off of a lot of quality serves, he can partially neutralize Djokovic’s best weapon.
What do I think will happen?
The top two players in the world collide. #2 is in supreme form. Still, #1 is peaking and is the better hard court player (maybe the best hard court player ever). I think if Djokovic is dialed in mentally and withstands what could be a rough first set given Rafa’s form that his willingness to take the ball early will start to pay off as the match unfolds.
I also think this could be the best match ever as these two guys are entering in great form and put on the greatest match I’ve ever seen in 2012. I think they are potentially each playing better than they were in 2012. They certainly each had easier semifinal matches than they did 7-years ago. So …