Novak Djokovic has dominated Rafael Nadal in recent times, but the Spanish great has tweaked his game in a clear strategy to get the better of his Serbian rival.
Another Grand Slam final, another Djokovic-Nadal clash - last year this duo did battle in six important finals with the Serb winning all of them, but can the Spaniard snap his losing streak?
In this blog I will look at how important this match is to Nadal, the elements of his game that Djokovic has been exploiting, and how Rafa has worked on these aspects at the Australian Open with this final in mind.
Last-chance saloon for Rafa?
The Majorcan is not used to failure. But he has lost six big finals in a row to Nole, who last season was pretty much unstoppable.
This final is of tremendous importance for Nadal. His path is constantly troubled by Nole and it's frustrating for him. I'm convinced that if this pattern continues Rafa could lose what has made him so strong throughout his career: his unwavering belief, desire, determination and passion.
Given how much effort he has put into getting past the final hurdle, these repeated blows could well traumatise Nadal. This problem needs to be solved quickly, so Nadal can prove to himself that he can stay the master of the game.
Why has Nadal failed?
There are several reasons why Rafael is struggling against Novak. Here are the main ones:
- Nadal's serve, especially his second serve, lacks depth and power; Djokovic, meanwhile, boasts the best returning stats on second serve. Throughout 2011, Nole won the most points on his opponents' second serve. Against Rafa, he's "having fun" when he takes these chances, and always starts these points as the offensive player. The Spaniard, when challenged like this, plays short and gets punished.
- Nadal's general depth of shots is also to blame for his losses against Djokovic. While most players don't take advantage when Nadal shortens his shots, the Serb is outstanding in the way he steps inside the court to take the ball early - taking time off Nadal who, when attacked, plays even shorter.
- When Rafa is the attacking one, he doesn't generate enough power to hurt Nole. The Serb is one of the best retrievers in the world and can to go from defence to offence on any ball that doesn't have enough power. This happens a lot in their battles.
What is at stake in this final?
The Serb certainly has the mental edge. Six finals played against the Majorcan, six victories. The numbers tell it all. Furthermore, Nole nearly saw himself lose against Andy Murray, like in the last US Open semi-final against Federer. Rather than fatiguing him, Nole will now feel even more invincible.
Rafa broke down mentally for the first time in his life in a Masters 1000 final against the Serb. He acknowledged it. But I feel he has bounced back since January and regained his legendary fighting spirit. He's ready, now more than ever.
Physically, both players have huge qualities. They both spent a lot of time on court in their semi-final. Even when Nadal has had an extra day off, Novak has previously shown himself to be fresher in their fights.
I have to give a little advantage to the Serb because of this. But Rafa has searched for solutions in two areas that have been troubling his game.
What has Nadal changed with Djokovic in mind?
- Nadal has kept 70% of his first serves in play throughout this Australian Open - this shows he is dealing with his aforementioned second-serve problem by seeking to minimise the need to use it; previously he was at 57% of first serves in during his matches against Novak, a stat the Serb exploited ruthlessly last season. By reducing the need to use his second serve Nadal is protecting himself from Nole's attacks on it: Rafa has been preparing for this match against Djokovic. The only issue is that Rafa's best serve - the slice he often uses on deuce and advantage - plays directly to Nole's best shot: his backhand.
- Regarding his shot efficiency, Nadal has added some weight on his racquet in order to change his swing weight (from 308 to 314): this means he can get more power and more length on his shots, reducing the shortening and power problem I talked about. He wants to make the Serb move backwards and to be more decisive on attacking balls so he can't turn defence into offence so easily.
- Finally, game-plan wise, Rafa has to stop avoiding the diagonal with his backhand on to Nole's forehand. Indeed, it's when he changes to the diagonal shot that he gets punished by the Serbian. He has to make Novak go backwards, forcing him to use his forehand to dictate the game. Will he do it? I'm not sure as he has not had to so far, but I think so.
Personally, I'm convinced Djokovic will play a great match, like he always does against Nadal.
But this time Rafa has a new plan, one he has executed throughout this tournament, and I think he is readier than ever.