The last time Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played in the Australian Open final, it took almost six hours in 2012 to determine the winner. This time it took about five minutes.
By Sunday, the talk of the men’s event had been a recent improved serve by Nadal. At age 32, he suddenly made it bigger and used it more effectively than ever before; He had been unbreakable in his last two rounds. Many of us believed the shot could be the key to securing Rafa a rare win against Djokovic in tough places.
When Djokovic broke Rafa in the second game – apparently breaking him at will, with strong earnings and even stronger punches – he had the feeling the air had run out of this eagerly awaited game before it even started.
“That was definitely the key,” Djokovic said when asked about this early break. “When I say that, I mean to start well in the game. Bringing the blocks out of the blocks with the right intensity and trying to be aggressive and protect the [baseline] and make him feel pressure from my side was obviously the plan. I managed to make a decisive break early in 3: 0 in less than 10 minutes. “
Djokovic never let the air return to the arena and never let Nadal into the game. The Serbian’s surprisingly one-sided 6-, 6-, 6- and 6-3 victory was reminiscent of some of his Grand Slam final victories over Roger Federer in 2014 and 2015. Like Nadal in Australia, Federer came out on top in these title fights from his game.
He would destroy somebody in the semifinals – Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka – to the point where it seemed impossible for any opponent to compete with him. In the final, Djokovic brought him back to earth.
They could see the difference in Federer’s eyes. against Djokovic there were doubts about them, where in his previous games no doubt existed. The same goes for Nadal on Sunday. Where Djokovic was quiet, Rafa was out in the margin, as shown in his game. Just knowing who was on the other side of the net was enough to force him.
His serves did not come back with points but with interest. He has slight foreheads that he had not overheated in two weeks. He tried to find a rhythm on his return. In cat-and-mouse rallies on the net, which he tends to win, he pulls light volleys and hits the ball at Djokovic instead of the open field.
In the middle of the second set, Rafa only gained 59 percent of the points on his first serve, the same serve that was so difficult for everyone else to handle. If anything, Djokovic only got better from there. He broke Nadal’s serve in the second set with two contemptuously confident winners whom Rafa could not even track down.
“That’s the kind of shot,” commented ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe of exactly one Djokovic forehand, “who says,” I can do anything I want. “
In hindsight, Nadal said that after not playing at all since the last US Open last year, he could have taken a tougher test in Australia before he had to boost his game at Djokovichian Heights.
“Unbelievable how he played, there is no doubt about that,” said Nadal. “But at the same time it’s true that I was physically unable. I played fantastic tennis in both weeks, that’s right, but probably played so well I did not suffer much in the two weeks. Five months without competing to have this big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. I probably have not something else today. “
With this win Djokovic brings Pete Sampras with 15 on the all-time list of Grand Slam singles titles and gets the seventh Australian Open title for men. He’s also just a slam away from holding all four again. It is a feat that, before Djokovic did not make it in 2015-2016, nothing has been achieved by men since Rod Laver was released in the 1969 slam year.
Now Djokovic is about to repeat it – and possibly surpass it. Granted, the Rafa-Novak momentum will be different for Roland Garros – Melbourne is Djokovic’s turf, Paris is Nadals – but would you bet against Djokovic for the foreseeable future after appearing on Sunday?
What makes Djokovic especially hard to play right now is his ability to improve with his competition. At last year’s US Open and at the Australian Open, he had lost a few loose sets in the early round before competing against his higher-ranking opponents in the later rounds. Instead of hurting Djokovic or giving him a new lead, Nadal’s improved serve seemed to be effective against him in the final. The harder Rafa hit, the harder and deeper Djokovic hit him.
How do you beat an opponent who plays better when you play better? At the moment of Djokovic with the majors this is not the case.