The Australian Open men’s event arrives at its conclusion at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night after several days of drama, plot twists and fitness vagaries that have asked more questions than they have answered about who is most likely to be this year’s champion.
Foremost among the questions is how could Novak Djokovic look so out of it at times during his four-hour 50-minute semi-final with Andy Murray on Friday night? And then how could he suddenly look so good?
The image of him slumped back in his chair almost ready to pass out at the end of the second set was replaced about an hour later by a player hitting winners almost at will as he nearly shut out Murray in the 25-minute fourth set of his eventual 6-3, 3-6, 6-7(4), 6-1, 7-5 victory.
Djokovic attributed his breathing difficulties to allergies, and said other players have had similar problems, with no logical explanation, at this year’s tournament.
He even suggested the flowers around the court could be a contributing factor.
Heading into this 30th meeting with Rafael Nadal – 16-13 for the Spaniard – it all seems to be about ‘Nole,’ his breathing problems and a possible leg injury as well.
But Nadal has also had a knee issue. He revealed after beating Roger Federer in the semi-finals that an innocent knee movement while sitting in a chair, accompanied by a cracking sound about 24 hours before he played his first match, had him “in my room crying because I believe I didn’t had the chance to play Melbourne.”
Who of Nadal or Djokovic, in their darkest hour the past two weeks, has been the most vulnerable? It might require a violation of doctor–patient confidentiality to obtain that answer.
Of primary concern will be Djokovic’s ability to re-energize because he only had a 40-hour turnaround before the final. Nadal played his semi-final on Thursday.
Looking at his sensational 2011 when he won all six matches with Nadal, Djokovic has shown an uncanny ability to rebound. He beat Nadal in the Rome final on clay by a tidy 6-4, 6-4 score after spending more than three hours the previous evening overcoming Murray 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(2).
There has never been a year like 2011 when a player as dominant as Nadal was the year before – winning Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010 – has been overtaken so comprehensively by a rival the following season.
In excruciatingly tough battles in the finals in Miami and at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic actually ended the match as the fresher looking, more fit competitor.
That has to give him confidence tonight no matter how badly he may feel.
But the key to the match will surely be between the ears, and that is where Djokovic has a big advantage. Just as Nadal is Federer’s nemesis and seems to be permanently installed in the Swiss’ “kitchen,” so is Djokovic resident in corners of the Nadal psyche that makes things very uncomfortable for him.
“I know I have a mental edge because I’ve won six finals in the five or six times we played in 2011,” Djokovic said. “I’ve had lots of success against him. On the other hand, it’s a new year, it’s a new challenge.”
Unless there has already been a sea change in the dynamic between the world No. 1 (Djokovic) and No. 2 (Nadal) very early in 2012, the resilient Serb is the choice to successfully defend his title by winning tonight’s Australian Open final.