x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Novak Djokovic is ready to be the hunted

The world No 1 may not be in the best physical shape but he knows what it takes to beat a fitter Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open men's singles final on Sunday.

After beating Andy Murray, right, in an epic semi-final, Novak Djokovic has relatively less time to recover for Sunday’s final.
After beating Andy Murray, right, in an epic semi-final, Novak Djokovic has relatively less time to recover for Sunday’s final.

If anyone knows how Novak Djokovic feels after sweating and scrapping for almost five hours in the Australian Open semi-finals, it is his opponent on Sunday, Rafael Nadal.

A day after Nadal beat Roger Federer in four compelling sets, Djokovic dug deep to overcome Andy Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-7, 6-1, 7-5 on Friday night in a match that stretched over four hours, 50 minutes.

Djokovic, the defending champion, will face Nadal in a third straight grand slam final on Sunday. It is a reversal from three years ago, when Nadal had to regroup after his own gruelling semi-final.

The Spaniard needed 5:14 in 2009 to get past compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the longest men's singles match in the tournament's history.

He was so exhausted, he did not lift a racket the following day. Yet when the final rolled round, he beat Federer – who had an extra day to rest – in five sets that reduced the usually composed Swiss player to tears.

Now a weary Djokovic has had less than 48 hours to prepare to face Nadal, one of the fittest players in the game.

"I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I've won six finals … we played in 2011 and I've had lots of success against him," Djokovic said. "That's going to be my main priority and concern … to physically be able to perform my best and be ready to play five sets."

Nadal said after a two-hour training session yesterday that he did not feel he had an advantage going into the final, reminding everyone about Federer's extra day of rest three years ago.

"Well, that's what it is," Nadal said. "In 2009 I played longer than [Federer] in the semi-finals. I was recovered for the final, so I think you can say it's unfair, yes, but not crazy unfair.

"Really unfair is the US Open when you don't have a day off between semi-finals and final. Having one day off, I believe you are not in big trouble."

Djokovic won 10 titles in 2011, six of them by beating Nadal in finals. Just as Nadal has the mental edge over Federer, Djokovic has developed a hold over Nadal.

But the No 1-ranked Djokovic at times has seemed vulnerable at Melbourne Park this year. Against David Ferrer in the quarter-finals, he struggled to breathe through most of a straight-sets win and at one point seemed to have severe pain in his leg.

Against Murray, he looked completely spent again when he hobbled to his chair after losing a third-set tiebreak to go down 2-1.

"He's done it many times before," Murray said. "He runs very well even when he's breathing heavy. I was ready for that. He was similar in the last match. But he moved fine."

Yesterday, Nadal said "it was difficult to imagine" that Djokovic suffered from breathing problems because he appeared to be so strong in the latter stages of Friday's match. Murray pushed Djokovic to the limit, and the Serb said it was one of the most memorable successes of his career.

"Definitely one of the best under the circumstances," he said. "Time wise, I think this was one of the longest, if not the longest, that I've played in the later stages of a grand slam. As a tennis player, you practise hard every single day knowing that you will get an opportunity to be part of such a great match and on such a high level."

Djokovic will bid for his fifth major title today, with the chance to become only the fifth man since the Open Era began in 1968 to win three straight major titles, after winning Wimbledon and the US Open last year.

If he can achieve that, Djokovic would make the 10-time slam winner Nadal the first man in the Open Era to lose three successive major finals.

Just like Nadal three years ago, Djokovic does not plan on doing much before the final.

"I think I had enough time spent on the court. Now it's all about recovery," said Djokovic, who has won 19 consecutive grand slam matches. After a year in which almost everything went his way and he overtook Nadal and Federer to become the world No 1, Djokovic is finding out what it feels like to be the hunted rather than the hunter.

"I'm aware now that everyone wants to win the major title, get that No 1 spot, he said.

"It's normal. It's something I'm prepared for."

Meanwhile, Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek denied the Bryan brothers a record 12th men’s grand slam doubles title on Saturday as they beat the American top seeds in straight sets in the Australian Open final.

The 7-6, 6-2 victory was the first for India’s Paes over the American twins Bob and Mike Bryan in a final after five defeats in title matches, and means he completes a career grand slam of doubles titles.

Coming into the Australian Open, Paes had won 47 career titles with 11 partners, including one with Stepanek, the Czech who now claims his first grand slam doubles title.