Imagine if Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao had squared off in 2010, when both were at their sharpest, rather than that underwhelming bout five years later?
Or how about if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson co-led the Masters going into the final round in the mid 2000s, instead of that recent exhibition match that came over a decade too late?
This Sunday in Melbourne, we will have a rare chance to see two of the greatest figures in the history of their sport duke it out. The bonus: both men are as good as they ever have been.
Rafael Nadal is in his fifth Australian Open final, two years removed from one of the great matches of the Open Era. In the 2017 final, Nadal and Roger Federer gave us five sets of magnificent shot-making and drama before the Swiss reversed the last set to claim Major no.18.
Traditionally, the first Major of the year hasn’t been the kindest to the Mallorcan as he has suffered defeat in three of the four finals he’s played.
After defeating Federer to capture the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in 2009, Nadal lost championship matches in 2012, 2014 and 2017. The only Major where he’s suffered defeat in as many finals is Wimbledon. He’s three-from-four in New York and an obscene 11-from-11 in Paris.
In previous years, Nadal would have taken the scenic route to the final. His path would have been marked with bruising clashes, long rallies, few aces and a lot of energy expended. Not so in 2019.
The 32-year-old slightly remodelled his serve in the off-season and the added wrist snap has given him more power and a genuine weapon. Nadal has averaged 6.5 aces per match at this year’s tournament compared with just 2.5 across the whole of last season.
Nadal’s improved serving allied with a much more aggressive mindset on return and in rallies has resulted in quick matches. The Spaniard hasn’t dropped a set at the 2019 Australian Open and Tomas Berdych (fourth round), Frances Tiafoe (quarters) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (semis) snatched only 22 games between them from the mighty Mallorcan.
Nadal’s groundstrokes, anticipation, net rushing and serve are as good, if not better, than they’ve ever been. Yet, even for a 17-time Major winner, all of those qualities might not be enough given who across the net this Sunday.
If Rafael Nadal owns Roland Garros at this point, Novak Djokovic has a good shout for the deeds of Melbourne Park.
The world no.1 is gearing up for his seventh Australian Open final this weekend.
Ominously for Nadal, the Serb has never lost a championship match in Rod Laver Arena.
The Spaniard knows this better than most as he was runner up in 2012 when the pair played the longest grand slam final in Open Era history at 5 hours, 53 minutes. Djokovic prevailed 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 7-5 in the end and understandably, neither player could stand for the trophy presentation.
Given the slightly quicker courts this year, and the more aggressive mentalities of both men at this stage of their careers, I doubt that Sunday’s match will test that record.
Djokovic’s run to the final hasn’t been as serene as Nadal’s. The 31-year-old dropped a set to both Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev en route to the last eight. The Serb’s level then lifted dramatically in the last two matches as Kei Nishikori (retired) and Lucas Pouille barely made a dent in the 14-time Major winner.
The world no.1 has that rare ability to make an opponent’s side of the court feel enormous, as he maneuvers them from side-to-side, while his baseline seems to shrink as the match progresses.
Amazingly, Sunday will be the 53rd meeting between the pair and Djokovic leads the head-to-head 27-25.
In Nadal’s favour: he shades their meetings in grand slam finals at 4-3. However, Djokovic has a commanding 18-7 record on hard courts and hasn’t lost to the Spaniard on the surface in six years.
I think it will be tight and there’s a very good chance of a tie-breaker or two. Given his upgraded serve and healthy body, Nadal fans should believe in his chances of winning.
However, when you take into account the Serb’s dominance in Australia and their recent meetings on hard courts, I’m going to side with Djokovic in four sets.