As Nadal knows, Djokovic plays better when the opponent gets tougher

As Nadal knows, Djokovic plays better when the opponent gets tougher

Rafael Nadal suffered his first straight-sets loss in a Grand Slam final to the world No. 1, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. It's the Serb's seventh Australian Open title and 15th career Grand Slam title.

The last time Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played an Australian Open final, in 2012, it took nearly six hours to decide the winner. This time it took roughly five minutes.

Before Sunday, the talk of the men’s event had been Nadal’s newly upgraded serve. At 32, he was suddenly hitting it bigger and using it more effectively than he ever had; in his last two rounds, he had been unbreakable. Many of us believed the shot could be the key to Rafa getting a rare win over Djokovic on hard courts. So when Djokovic went ahead and broke Rafa in the second game—broke him seemingly at will, with strong returns and even stronger ground strokes—it felt like all the air had gone out of this highly anticipated match before it had even begun.

“That was definitely the key,” Djokovic said when he was asked about that early break. “When I say that, I mean starting off well in the match. Coming [out of] the blocks with the right intensity and trying to be aggressive and protect the [baseline] and make him feel pressure from my side, obviously that the was the game plan. I managed to get a crucial break early, get 3-0 in under 10 minutes.”

Djokovic never let the air come back into the arena, and never let Nadal get his teeth into the match. The Serb’s startlingly one-sided 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win was reminiscent of some of his Grand Slam final wins over Roger Federer in 2014 and 2015. Like Nadal in Australia, Federer came into those title matches at the top of his game. He would destroy someone in the semis—Andy Murray, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka—to the point where it looked impossible for any opponent to compete with him. Then, in the final, Djokovic would bring him back down the earth.

You could see the difference in Federer’s eyes; against Djokovic, there was doubt in them, where there hadn’t been any doubt in his earlier matches. The same was true of Nadal on Sunday. Where Djokovic was calm, Rafa was on edge, and it showed in his game. Just knowing who was on the other side of the net was enough to make him press. His serves, instead of winning him points, came back with interest. He overhit easy forehands that he hadn’t overhit for two weeks. He struggled to find any rhythm on his return. In cat-and-mouse rallies at net, which he usually tends to win, he netted easy volleys and hit the ball right back at Djokovic instead of the open court.

By the middle of the second set, Rafa was winning just 59 percent of the points on his first serve, the same serve that had proven so difficult for everyone else to handle. If anything, Djokovic only got better from there. He broke Nadal’s serve in the second set with a pair of disdainfully confident ground-stroke winners that Rafa couldn’t even begin to try to track down.

“That’s the kind of shot,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said accurately of a Djokovic forehand, “that says, ‘I can do anything I want.’”

In hindsight, Nadal said, after not playing at all since last year’s US Open, he could have used a tougher test in Australia before having to elevate his game to Djokovichian heights.

“Was unbelievable the way he played, no doubt about that,” Nadal said. “But at the same time is true that physically I was not able. I played fantastic tennis during both weeks, is true, but probably playing that well, I didn’t suffer much during the both weeks. Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. That something else probably today, I don’t have it yet.”

With the win, Djokovic passes Pete Sampras on the all-time Grand Slam singles-title list with 15, and takes home a men’s-record seventh Australian Open trophy. He’s also just one Slam away from holding all four again; it’s a feat that, before Djokovic did it in 2015-2016, hadn’t been accomplished on the men’s side since Rod Laver won the calendar-year Slam in 1969. Now Djokovic is on the verge of repeating it—and possibly surpassing it. Granted, the Rafa-Novak dynamic will be different at Roland Garros—Melbourne is Djokovic’s turf, Paris is Nadal’s—but after Sunday’s display, would you bet against Djokovic at any major for the foreseeable future?

What makes Djokovic especially difficult to play right now is his ability to improve along with his competition. At last year’s US Open and at this Australian Open, he dropped a pair of loose sets in the early going, before clamping down in the later rounds, against his higher-ranked opponents. Instead of hurting Djokovic, or giving him a new edge, Nadal’s improved serve actually seemed to work against him in the final. The harder Rafa hit it, the harder and deeper Djokovic hit it back.

How do you beat an opponent who plays better when you play better? For now, in the case of Djokovic at the majors, you don’t.

This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:

WTA St. Petersburg: Starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 5 a.m. ET, catch live coverage of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy featuring Australian Open finalist Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova.

WTA Hua Hin: Top seed Garbine Muguruza headlines the field from Hua Hin. Watch every match of the Thailand Open, starting Monday, Jan. 28 at 3 a.m. ET.