Tennis fans can be forgiven if they’re getting a sense of déjà vu from the Australian Open final to be played later tonight in Melbourne—after all, it’s the third time in a row that Rafael Nadal has faced Novak Djokovic in a major final. The bad news for Nadal is that he’s lost both of the previous meetings, as well as six straight matches overall against the Serbian star.
As far as this particular match is concerned, it’s hard to see Nadal stopping Djokovic’s momentum. Even aside from the fact that Djokovic has been the world’s best player overall for the last year and change, the hard courts of Melbourne Park are a friendlier surface for him than for Nadal (who’s more versatile than he used to be but still prefers clay).
In the long term, though, the outlook for Nadal gets brighter. A look at his track record against his other major rival, Roger Federer, suggests that Nadal is well equipped to regain the advantage he once enjoyed against Djokovic.
In taking control of his battle with Federer—against whom Nadal is 10-2 since the beginning of 2008—Nadal has shown an ability to adapt his tactics over the long term. After losing to Federer in the Wimbledon final in both 2006 and 2007, Nadal tightened up his return game, hung tough in long baseline rallies and won an epic five-set match to capture his first title at the All-England Club.
Djokovic’s meteoric rise to tennis’ upper echelons will require a similar adjustment from Nadal in response. The fact that the Spaniard hasn’t solved Djokovic yet is no indication that it won’t happen in the future.
For now, this rivalry belongs to Djokovic, who will win his third Aussie Open title. Down the road, though, that pendulum is going to swing back the other direction and give tennis fans plenty of terrific battles.