By Peter Bodo, Tennis.com
The upcoming Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic is sure to bring out all those "unstoppable force meets immovable object" cliches, and rightly so -- even if nobody had expected the unstoppable force, Djokovic, to meet an excellent stand-in for Nadal in the immovable object department, Andy Murray. It took Djokovic almost five hours and five mostly grueling sets to subdue Murray in the semifinals yesterday.
The good news for Djokovic is that he survived a very game opponent who, despite occasional and costly lapses, played a terrific match. He often out-Djokoviced Djokovic. That is, Murray won numerous punishing, high-speed rallies with blazing placements and rifle-shot winners.
The good news for Nadal is that it was a more exhausting match than his own four-set win the previous day over Roger Federer, and it raised questions about Djokovic's fitness -- if not his heart.
In the early part of his match with Murray, Djokovic experienced obvious discomfort with his respiratory system, breathing almost exclusively through his mouth and often gasping like a fish out of water at the end of especially demanding rallies. And at the back end of the match, he was obliged to do a little stretching of one leg (his right, I believe). There was no obvious injury, but you have to wonder how the leg felt after the post-match cool-down.
The focus yesterday was on how Djokovic managed to overcome his breathing problems, and catch a second, third, fourth and 11th wind. But one sure sign of how much effort he expended, and how much it cost him, was the way he slowly went from playing in almost utter silence to punctuating each swing with a guttural two-stage grunt. The focus today will be on his heart and appetite for combat. The focus tomorrow, though, will be on how much -- if any at all -- he left out there on the floor of Rod Laver Arena.
Djokovic's will is steely, now tempered by the fires of his amazing 2011. His heart is engorged with passion for the game and down-in-dirty competition. But everyone has a limit. Do not think that Nadal is unmindful of that. Not after his nemesis has just finished a match that had all the earmarks, energy and majesty of a Grand Slam final -- but one round too soon.
This reality will undoubtedly have some influence on Nadal's game plan even if he, like most top players, is not about to draw up a blueprint based on what he suspects the other guy is thinking or feeling. And there's nothing secret about what Djokovic is thinking, because he's already told the world press:
"There is no secret it (the final) is going to be physical again, I will do my best to recover. I have a day and a half. I will try to get as much sleep and recovery program underway and hope for the best. I think that's going to be crucial, you know, for me to recover and to be able to perform my best, because Rafa is fit. He's been playing well. He had an extra day. He definitely wants to win this title."
Nadal has demonstrated just how much he wants this title (which could be, but isn't necessarily, code for "wants to beat Djokovic") by some of the decisions he took in what passes for the off-season, and before his first real test flight of the year, his semifinal with Federer. He wanted to play more aggressively with his forehand, rather than just try to find Federer's backhand with that shot. "I was trying to hit winners with my forehand," he said, pleased with the experiment. "I did it for moments."
Nadal also made an effort to play his backhand from on or inside the baseline, instead of behind it, taking the ball sooner. "It's working well," he said. "We believe I have to keep improving."
I don't think those tweaks were custom-installed for Federer, although Nadal made a point of saying that he'd been going to the well of Federer's backhand a little too often in recent matches. Surely Nadal understands that one key to Djokovic's six wins over Nadal last year was how well Djokovic handled that basic set-play: Nadal's big topspin forehand to the right-handed player's backhand.
Last year's experience with Djokovic confirmed that meeting him in a flat-out hitting contest is not necessarily the best strategy for Nadal, as well as it's worked against everyone else on the planet. By playing from further inside the court and going for a little more with his forehand, Nadal will be forcing the action and decision-making to a greater degree than in 2011.
On the other side of the net, Djokovic will go into the final with an improved second serve, and that's a huge asset (if I had to boil the handicapping down to one line, I'd say the better returner will win). The serve was effective against Murray, who's a better returner than Nadal, so it ought to pay dividends in the final. Djokovic will continue to enjoy an advantage in his ability to change the direction of the ball, as well as his ability to hit relatively flat, especially on the backhand side. His down-the-line backhand is especially hard to handle for a lefty, and it also opens up the court for that punishing inside-out forehand.
But I keep coming back to the potential fatigue dividend for Nadal. Before the Djokovic-Murray semi, he discounted the idea that a very long match, combined with one less day rest, might hurt his opponent. He pointed out that he himself had played for over four hours a few rounds earlier (when he beat Tomas Berdych), and that as long as you get that critical day off between matches, all ought to be good.
Then he added, "If you play a match like I played in 2009 against Verdasco semifinals, maybe yes, you can have a little bit troubles for the final. But that's something not usual."
Djokovic had just that kind of match, at four hours and 50 minutes. But lest that seem like an insurmontable obstacle, keep in mind that Nadal went on to win two days after that five-hour and 15-minute match with Verdasco, beating Federer in the final.
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