MWTC: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal both have cause for optimism in 2019 after Abu Dhabi action
The world No 1 won his fourth title in the capital, but the world No 2 made encouraging steps in his return to fitness
One of them left with the trophy, the other played only one match; but both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will have left Abu Dhabi happy following the conclusion of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
An exhilarated Djokovic won arguably the best MWTC final in its 11-edition history on Saturday night as he defeated Kevin Anderson 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 to claim the title for a fourth time.
After losing to Anderson on Friday, Nadal chose not to play the play-off for third place the following day against Karen Khachanov. But in retrospect, even managing to play one match here was a victory of sorts, given the doubts over the Spaniard's fitness coming into Abu Dhabi having not played a competitive match since September.
So the world No 1 and 2 will have viewed their time in the UAE positively. Both will have rather different objectives, at least initially, for 2019, though.
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Djokovic can go to Melbourne for the Australian Open with real confidence. His victories against Khachanov and Anderson were impressive for contrasting reasons.
The Khachanov match was vintage Djokovic. He put in an assured display in Friday's semi-final, using his experience to pull apart the game of his young Russian opponent.
Anderson, on the other hand, was a real contest. The world No 6 made it clear pre-tournament he wanted to test himself against the game's best ahead of 2019 and he absolutely went for it against Djokovic.
The South African had beaten Nadal on Friday and he came agonisingly close to defeating Djokovic too.
But the Serb, as he so often does, found a way to win. He stayed in the match after dropping the first set, showed patience, and then put pressure on his opponent's serve.
By the end Djokovic was pumped. He won the match after a 30-point rally and the way he punched the air with both fists, cupped his ear to the crowd to receive the cheers, and then let out a primal roar of celebration showed how much beating Anderson here meant to him.
Djokovic's first goal for 2019 is winning a record seventh Australian Open title.
He acknowledged post-match on Saturday that now he is back at No 1 he is again the man the rest of the field want to beat.
"I like a challenge in life, because from the challenges we grow and we learn," he said. "So I try to embrace whatever is in front of me, I have to accept it but I’m working for the best.”
Djokovic's form in Abu Dhabi highlights that anyone wanting to usurp him is going to have to play exceptionally to beat him in Melbourne.
If Djokovic and Nadal are to meet in Australia it would have to be in the final as they are in the opposite sides of the draw.
Given what we saw of Nadal at MWTC that would be very unlikely as clearly the Spaniard's return to fitness is a work in progress.
Nadal had not played since knee trouble forced him to retire from his semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro at the US Open. Subsequently he also had to deal with an abdominal injury and then had minor ankle surgery.
The 17-time major winner was competitive against Anderson in his three-set loss, but his court coverage, understandably, was limited after more than three months out.
Nadal has come back from injuries before and there is no reason to fear he will not do so again.
Pulling out of Saturday's match was a sensible decision. Having not played for more than three months he had gone toe-to-toe with Anderson in a gruelling match that lasted almost two hours. To play another match, against Khachanov, 24 hours later was always going be a big ask.
Khachanov is one of the game's most exciting prospects and his power from the back of the court would have given Nadal another major workout.
“When you are out since a long time ago, I had the surgery a little over a month ago, it’s normal that I have some pains," Nadal said.
"Being honest, I’m satisfied the way I was playing tennis. I am more or less satisfied with how the body held.”
Nadal is confident he will be in Melbourne. But the chances of him winning his 18th major there are slim.
The further he goes the better but his main focus will be getting himself match sharp and back to full fitness ahead of the clay-court season. If the draw opens up and he can win Australia, which is possible when you think he won the US Open in 2017 without playing anyone in the top 20, then that will obviously be a huge bonus.
The French Open remains his best chance of a grand slam in 2019, though, and his season should be built around that.
But preparing himself physically for the summer events on the red surface and then two weeks at Roland Garros in May and June should be his the goal.
The MWTC is effectively the start of both Djokovic and Nadal's 2019 journeys and both men can be optimistic, on the back of their time at Zayed Sports City, that more success will follow over the next 12 months.
Updated: December 30, 2018 04:46 PM