Djokovic, Nadal goes beyond Oz
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Even though he's won a record 16 Grand Slam titles, Roger Federer has doubters. Federer can't be considered the greatest tennis player ever, so the theory goes, since he routinely falls short against Rafael Nadal.
But Nadal, who inflicted more misery on Federer on Thursday, knows what losing regularly to a multiple Grand Slam winner feels like himself. He made history by bagging six French Open crowns and compiling an 81-match winning streak on clay, but now he's on the verge of a much more dubious feat: Becoming the first man in the Open era to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals.
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Novak Djokovic inflicted the previous two losses as part of a dominant, unexpected six-match winning streak against the Spaniard in 2011. Djokovic, who survived a five-set thriller against Andy Murray on Friday night, is set for yet another showdown with Nadal on Sunday for the Australian Open crown.
It's a fitting climax to what's been an absorbing, action-packed fortnight in Melbourne. If he finally overcomes Djokovic, Nadal will have nabbed an 11th Grand Slam title to edge closer to Federer; a win for defending champion Djokovic would be his fifth, solidifying his superiority at the summit of the men's game.
"This is a huge, huge match," said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. "If you're Nadal and you win this match, it's like you hit the refresh button on your computer and you're on your way to a huge year. If Novak wins, man, you have to start talking about the guy in absolute rarefied air. He would have won four of the last five majors.
"As a fan I'm nervous just thinking about it."
You wonder if Nadal will be nervous.
Nadal had to be rooting for Murray in the semis. He went 3-0 against the Scot in Grand Slams last year.
Nadal, meanwhile, had no answer to the Djokovic game, and the Serb did the almost unthinkable by dethroning Nadal at Wimbledon. Wasn't Nadal supposed to have a clear edge on grass?
Two months later, Djokovic outlasted Nadal in a U.S. Open final that wouldn't have looked out of place at Madison Square Garden or Caesars Palace. They traded blows over and over, and Djokovic, the lightweight, was the last man standing.
"I'm sure Rafa and his whole team in the offseason have studied and tried to figure out [how to beat Djokovic]," Gilbert said. "It's like what Federer has had to do with him."
Djokovic held up fine in southwest London and Flushing Meadows, but his health is a concern here. He suffered spells of breathing problems (yes, again), which were caused by allergies, against Murray and then David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
"I've been trying to do everything possible to clear that out," Djokovic said. "But we are all surrounded with the flowers. It's really difficult to take that away."
Djokovic would hunch over following rallies and walk to his chair at a turtle's pace at changeovers.
And after Murray took a two-sets-to-one lead in the semis, Djokovic appeared to be on his way out. Fortunately for him, Murray waned in the fourth and a re-energized Djokovic eventually advanced in 4 hours, 50 minutes.
"Even if he's suffering from those breathing problems, the guy was running like a gazelle in the third, fourth and fifth," Gilbert said. "From what I saw, the guy is an animal. He was getting stronger at the end."
Respiratory issues aside, he'll no doubt be tired and has a day less than Nadal to recover. Nadal was in a similar position in 2009, when he downed Fernando Verdasco in 5 hours, 14 minutes on a Friday and had to face Federer two days later. He won.
"We all have different bodies that require more or less time to recover, so I can't really compare," Djokovic said. "I will do my best to recover. I have a day and a half. I will try to get as much sleep and [get] a recovery program underway and hope for the best. I think it's going to be crucial for me to recover and to be able to perform my best because Rafa is fit. He's playing well."
Nadal expects Djokovic to be OK.
"Having one day off, I believe you are not in big trouble," he said.
Nadal, likely the crowd favorite, hasn't been without health scares of his own. His training in December was truncated because of a shoulder injury, and he came close to withdrawing from the Australian Open when he hurt his knee while seated at a chair at his hotel in Melbourne.
Only to Rafa, eh? Now, though, the knee is fine.
His game plan must be, too.
Nadal added a little weight to his racket in the offseason in an effort to hit more winners, but he said it would take months to make all the changes he wants to his game. If outlasting Djokovic won't do, he'll need to speed up the process.
"I don't know if I am enough ready to win the match of tomorrow, but I believe that I can do it, and I'm going to fight for it," he said.
He wants to indeed avoid losing seven in a row, no?
Prediction: Djokovic in four
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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