Hello. I hope you’ve sitting somewhere comfortable because we could be here a while. Probably not as long as in 2012, when these two gladiators decided the final should last five hours and 53 minutes, given they’ve introduced fifth-set tie-breaks this year. But you’re still likely to need a lot of endurance for this one. It’s Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal, after all; they’re so competitive they’d throw their heart and soul into a thumb war, so consider yourself warned about how intense they’ll be when there’s this much sporting history on the line.
It’s huge game for both men for so many reasons. Let’s start with Djokovic, who is bidding to move above Roger Federer and Roy Emerson by winning a record seventh Australian Open title, and who is also looking to become the first man in history to record three streaks of three or more consecutive grand slam titles. That didn’t seem likely a year ago, when he was locked in a physical and spiritual slump, and he limped out of a quarter-final with Hyeon Chung, but there’s no doubt that he’s the man to beat again. The reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion has rediscovered the form that made him so terrifyingly untouchable before he suffered that dip, as Lucas Pouille discovered in a brutal semi-final on Friday, and he begins as the favourite.
That might sound surprising bearing in mind Nadal is yet to lose a set during this tournament, but Djokovic owns this court and is unbeaten in his last seven hard court matches with the Spaniard. He leads their overall head-to-head record 27-25, won their Wimbledon semi-final last year and has only lost two of their last 10 matches. Those are some convincing numbers and they’ll give Djokovic immense confidence as he looks to move to within two grand slam titles of Nadal – and within five of Federer.
And there’s the rub. Because if Djokovic is close to the Swiss master, Nadal is even closer. That, more than anything, is what makes this final so huge. Federer, beaten in the fourth round by Stefanos Tsitsipas, who went on to be crushed by Nadal in the semis, knows his record tally of 20 titles is under threat. Nadal, on 17 titles, could even storm out in front this year. Djokovic, slightly further back on 14, will feel he can get this done by the end of 2020. No wonder Federer has decided he’s going to make his first appearance at the French Open since 2015 this year; there are legacies to protect and legacies still to leave.
Nadal being Nadal, he claims not to care about all this history chat. But are you buying it? Fat chance. This final is of great significance for him, especially as there are no guarantees he can rely on his muscular but fragile body. He missed a lot of tennis through injury last year and even started this campaign by withdrawing from Brisbane with a thigh injury. Time isn’t on the 32-year-old’s side. His knees could yet conspire against him. But if he wins this title for second time, 10 years on from beating Federer in a thrilling five-set final, he’ll head to Roland Garros on 18 titles, with history very much within touching distance.
The only problem is trying to prise Djokovic’s fingers off the trophy. Easier said than done.
Play begins at: 8.30am GMT, 7.30pm in Melbourne.