It is almost the final Sunday, and we have the usual suspects Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the final. It's the third consecutive time the pair has met in the final of a Slam, and if Nadal loses the match, he will have the "honour" of becoming the first man in the Open Era to lose three consecutive Slam finals.
Everything is on the line in this match, and once we know the result of it, we'll be a whole lot wiser about what 2012 will be like, tennis-wise.
If Novak wins, he will have beaten Rafa for the seventh consecutive time, will hold four of the last five Slam titles and will get a crack at the "impossible" four Slams in a row at the French Open.
If Rafa wins, he should get that confidence back that Novak robbed off him in 2011 and will have a great chance to build on the momentum to turn the now one-sided rivalry into a real rivalry again.
Who to favour?
The Case for Rafa
The biggest reason to expect Rafa to win is, in my opinion, Andy Murray. Murray took Djokovic through five gruelling sets in an almost five-hour epic battle with mind-blowing rallies. The match resembled the U.S. Open slugfest between Rafa and Nole, and if that match is any indication, Djokovic will be in big trouble tomorrow.
A week after the U.S. Open Final, Djokovic retired against Juan Martin del Potro in the Davis Cup due to a bad back. This time, he only has about 40 hours of rest between the two matches.
Nadal, on the other hand, has two days off and should be as physically fit as ever.
Knowing that their matches and points are typically long and hard-fought epics, that is a huge advantage to Nadal. Add to that that Djokovic had breathing problems yesterday and was stretching a leg late in the match, and Nadal would have to favor his own chances the longer the match goes.
While all of the above is about the state of Nole, there are also positives when it comes to Rafa's own game. In his semifinal against Roger Federer, he came relatively close to Federer's number of winners, and the same was the case against Tomas Berdych in the quarters. In both matches, his opponents hit approximately twice the amount of unforced errors as Nadal.
When Nadal starts hitting almost as many winners as Federer and Berdych, you have to admit he's being more aggressive than usual. Though still the defender, he hasn't camped out 10 feet behind the baseline, and though he did give Berdych some short balls to prey on in the first couple sets, his shorts are landing deep in the court.
He's also been hitting his backhand from or even inside the baseline, taking the ball much earlier than usual. And against Berdych in the fourth, he returned as well as Djokovic at his best.
Djokovic has clobbered Nadal's serve throughout most of 2011. While still not perfect, Nadal has added a few miles to his serve compared to the 2011 U.S. Open while keeping an extremely high percentage.
Finally, this is a new year, and it's not impossible to imagine that Nadal—the great competitor he is—has been able to hit the "refresh" button in his mind when it comes to confidence and the mental battle against Djokovic. Then again, if Djokovic comes out firing, those six loses will probably creep back in.
If he can serve well (and with a high percentage), stand his ground on the baseline, hit with more aggression (and more winners than his usual self) and Djokovic comes out a little spent, Nadal just might pull the upset.
The Case for Djokovic
While I do believe Nadal has a decent chance of winning given all of the reasons I stated above, I still favor Djokovic.
To paraphrase Steve Tignor, until proven otherwise, Djokovic is the man to beat in this matchup.
Djokovic broke Murray 11 times despite Murray hitting an unusually high amount of first serves, for his standards (63 percent), and Murray's first serve is a notch or two bigger than Rafa's.
I wrote a lot about Nadal-Djokovic last year, and the basic fact of the matter in their 2011 rivalry was this: Novak's return game is at least a level above Rafa's, and his hold game is equally good or better. That led him to six victories and 14 out of 18 sets, and it should lead him to another victory against Rafa tomorrow.
Djokovic, in 2011, was the first player to match Rafa in stamina and consistency—he even beat him in mental toughness. When the chips were down, Novak was the toughest guy out there. Against Murray, he showed that yet again.
The biggest hurdle for Djokovic will be to recover physically from his almost five-hour semifinal. If he can't, he might not be able to match Rafa in stamina and consistency. Then we suddenly have a completely different match, where Djokovic will be forced to go for broke and hope he hits the lines more often than not.
Djokovic beat Rafa by playing Rafa's own game better. It's an open question whether he, at this point, can beat Rafa by hitting past him and going for broke on the relatively slow surface. I wouldn't necessarily bet on it, but I wouldn't bet against it either.
The keys to the match for Djoker will be the following:
A. Return as well as he did in 2011 and keep the pressure on Rafa through all his service games.
B. Never allow Rafa to push him behind the baseline, but again, as in 2011, embrace that baseline, take the ball on the rise and bully Rafa around the court from that position.
C. Attack the Rafa forehand with his cross-court backhand and go up the line with it, too. Bully the Rafa backhand with his forehand and keep Rafa guessing about what comes next.
D. Overcome whatever physical and respiratory problems he has. You just don't beat Rafa in a Slam final without being close to 100 percent. Djokovic needs to be able to run down Rafa's winners just as Rafa will run down many of Novak's.
My Pick: Djokovic in four
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