The 2012 Australian Open sees two familiar foes face off, promising a dramatic, and possibly historic, finish to the years first Grand Slam.
In the post match interview with Jim Courier (By the way, Courier’s interviews are just brutal. I literally cringe listening to him talk) Novak Djokovic was visibly drained from his grueling five set semi-final match with Andy Murray. For Murray this was a tough loss to swallow, seemingly on the brink of another Australian Open, only to see his fifth set comeback fall short. Though it may take some time for Murray to recover from this loss, Djokovic has but two days to recover before he has to face on of the most physical players on tour, Rafa Nadal. Dkjokovic described his semi-final bout with Murray as “one of the best matches I have ever played” a fairly surprising comment considering his 2011 successes. In the first Grand Slam final of the 2012 season it looks like Djokovic may have to put together back-to-back extraordinary matches to firmly assert himself as the man to beat this year.
Will the 2012 tennis landscape be inextricably thrown off its axis if Rafa Nadal defeats Djokovic in the final or will Djokovic be universally viewed as the undisputed best player on the planet with a victory? It seems ridiculous to think that a victory for Nadal, a 10 time grand Slam winner in his own right, would change the tennis landscape all that much, but if we take a second look at the numbers Rafa may not to waste this chance to get a leg up on the number one player in the world. If Djokovic defeats Nadal this will be his third straight Grand Slam victory, something only four other men, including Nadal, have done in the Open Era. A Djokovic win would not only be a historical victory but also a personally demoralizing one for Nadal. It would be his seventh straight loss to a man who had before 2011 only won a single Grand Slam title. To put this statistic in perspective, Rafa Nadal has only ever lost nine matches to Federer. Ever. Nadal still boasts a 16-13 record all time against Djokovic, but that record is slowly coming back to .500. I can’t help but wonder, is there anything Nadal can do to get his swag back?
The general consensus in the tennis world prior to 2011 was that Rafa Nadal was the most mentally tough player on tour. His mental fortitude was the reason he was able to not only play with Federer when he first burst onto tour but also the reason for eventually unseatting Federer as the number one player in the world. With Djokovic’s recent run however, it is clear that Djokovic is in Nadal’s head a bit. Nadal has exhibited visible frustration in post match interviews (none with Jim Courier thank God) and even during matches against Djokovic, something rarely seen before the 2011 season. Sure, it’s natural for a player to be pissed after a loss, but in comparison, Novak’s positive and even joking attitude, have catapulted him to the top spot in the sport.
Djokovic has always been good for witty quote or two (In his post match interview with with Jim “Cringe Worthy” Courier he said crushing bananas and energy drinks gave him the energy to beat Murray. Classic.) but he now possesses an unparalleled swagger and confidence. It is tough to say who is the more talented player between Djokovic and Nadal, but Nadal had always been able to grind out matches and mentally outlast Djokovic in the past. Not any more. How many times do players fold under pressure? How often does Andy Murray play tentative and counter punch in big points, even break points? There is a reason Djokovic was the one to make the leap and Murray wasn’t. There is no better example of Novak’s new found bravado than the 2011 US Open semi-final. Facing match point Djokovic stepped into a Federer second serve and ripped it down the line (see video below). He then lifted his arms to the crowd as if to say “Is there any doubt I’m coming back?”. The US Open crowd responded with cheers that in the past have been reserved for only for Federer. Djokovic’s wry smile at the end of the clip optimizes his laid back, even cocky, attitude these days. Djokovic inevitably went on to win the set, the match, and the tournament. On Sunday Rafa will find himself on the other side of the court, hoping (probably praying) that he’ll succeed where Federer failed, and finally wipe that smile off Djokovic’s face.