By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – After winning one-sided semi-finals that few will remember in years to come, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal will face off in a blockbuster Australian Open decider on Sunday that offers much more than a clash of great players.
Both have landed in the final in outrageous form, with second seed Nadal conceding only six games to Stefanos Tsitsipas before top seed Djokovic gave up only four to Lucas Pouille.
Having proved, once again, untouchable by the younger generation, Serb Djokovic and Spaniard Nadal will meet for an eighth time in a Grand Slam final and their first at Melbourne Park since the record five-hour 53 minute epic in 2012, a match regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
A packed crowd at Rod Laver Arena will see two of the modern day greats slug it out in their 53rd match, with Djokovic leading Nadal 27-25 in the head-to-head tally.
Well might tennis fans feel privileged.
While both players have added to their pile of Grand Slam silverware in recent years, they have not had to face each other in a title match at the four majors since the 2014 French Open.
Nadal won that meeting in four sets, nudging to a 4-3 lead in their Grand Slam finals count, but given his fitness issues and unremarkable record at recent hard-court Slams there was those who doubted the 32-year-old would get to Sunday’s decider.
The lefthander retired hurt in the quarter-finals at last year’s tournament and again at the semi-finals of the U.S. Open.
But all that has been thrown aside during a scintillating run at Melbourne Park in which he has not dropped a set.
Older but wiser, Nadal has added pace to his serve, allowing him to be more aggressive on the second shot and shorten the points to preserve his body.
The quality of his tennis and his “happiness” in his game bodes well for his chances of upsetting the Serb, who is clear favourite to claim a record seventh title in Melbourne.
“(There) have been very special moments that we share together in the court, with Novak, during all our careers in the most important stages,” 2009 champion Nadal, bidding for a second Melbourne title, said on Saturday.
“We push each other to the limit of our tennis level. Tomorrow (is) going to be another episode.”
In contrast to Nadal, few would have expected anything less than seeing Djokovic feature in Sunday’s final.
It has been a tournament he has owned for much of the past 11 years since beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for his first Grand Slam title in 2008 as a 20-year-old.
Now bidding for his 15th Grand Slam title and third in succession, Djokovic’s run has not quite been as dominant as Nadal’s, surviving a four-set test in the last 16 against Russian Daniil Medvedev and later complaining of back soreness.
Yet he crushed all doubts about the state of his game with a 83-minute demolition of Pouille on Friday.
Describing 17-times Grand Slam champion Nadal as his “greatest rival”, Djokovic has watched the Spaniard with interest in Melbourne.
“With everything he possesses, all the qualities in his game, adding to that also a lot of free points on the serve makes him much tougher to play against,” he noted.
While the 2017 Melbourne final between Roger Federer and Nadal was seen as a throwback for the sentimentalists, Sunday’s match may open up a new and thrilling phase to one of tennis’s greatest rivalries.
It may also reopen the “greatest of all time” debate.
Victory for Nadal would make him only the third player to claim both Grand Slams twice after Roy Emerson and Rod Laver, while bringing him within two of Swiss Federer’s total of 20.
A win for Djokovic would move him past Pete Sampras (14) to outright third on the list of Grand Slam title winners.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)