Novak Djokovic is a helpful, kind person. He set the Australian Open men’s singles finals on a flat, even surface. He neatly arranged the backdrop to this latest, greatest clash with Rafael Nadal.
One thing sports fans often lose sight of is that when a team or athlete plays extremely well, the opponent often has something to do with that. Yes, there are times when a great team demolishes a high-caliber opponent, and it is breathtaking to watch. A great example comes from the 2014 NBA Finals. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the rest of the Miami Heat were trying to win a third straight championship. They were REALLY, REALLY GOOD.
The San Antonio Spurs played “god-mode” basketball and wiped them off the floor in five games, winning the NBA championship by a margin of four games to one. The Spurs didn’t win easily because the Heat were their opponents. The Spurs were simply that much better than the second-best team in the NBA that year.
Most of the time, though, a pretty and easy blowout is a product of the opponent not being in the same league.
A lot of people thought Tomas Berdych was scary in the first week of the Australian Open. Reality check: He played a still-recovering Kyle Edmund, who is not entirely match fit; Robin Haase, a tease of a tennis player with legitimate talent but an entrenched and longstanding reputation for not living up to his abilities; and Diego Schwartzman, a plucky and determined player but not someone who has done well at the Australian Open over the years.
Roger Federer looked great against Taylor Fritz in the third round. Related: Playing Taylor Fritz had something to do with Federer looking very clean in that match.
A high-level performance against a weak opponent doesn’t cease to be a high-level performance. However, not receiving robust opposition enables the high level of play to persist.
Better opponents stand in the way of high performance.
After Rafael Nadal breezed past Stefanos Tsitsipas as though the Greek wasn’t even there in the first of two Australian Open men’s semifinals, a lot of ink was spilled about how dominant and overwhelming Rafa looked.
Again: Great performances don’t cease being great just because the opponent couldn’t offer much resistance. Nevertheless, Tsitsipas’s return game, backhand, and overall readiness to counter Rafa’s punches were all markedly absent from the proceedings. Rafa’s brilliance existed, but it was easy for said brilliance to exist. Nadal was seen as this roaring force which might swamp Djokovic.
The perfection of Djokovic’s similarly emphatic dismissal of an overmatched Lucas Pouille in the second men’s semifinal in Melbourne is found in this reality: The blowout neatly reset the table. It shaped the buildup to Sunday in a way which makes the final the battle of equals it often has been and should once again become.
One Sunday before Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams, tennis will have its own “Super Bowl 53,” the 53rd meeting between Djokovic and Nadal. This is a supreme confrontation, the best rivalry of all the Big 4 or Big 3 entries. The stakes are beyond high. The last meeting at a major tournament — the 2018 two-day Wimbledon semifinal won by Djokovic, 10-8 in the fifth — was the best men’s match of the season.
Djokovic’s demolition of Pouille — following Nadal’s thrashing of Tsitsipas — puts this final on equal footing. Both men soared in their semifinals… mostly because they’re Novak F—ing Djokovic and Rafael F—ing Nadal, but partly because they received dream draws.
A reasonable person will look at these two giants of tennis and conclude that there is not much between them. Djokovic might have gotten the short end of the stick by playing the Friday semifinal instead of the Thursday semifinal, but his semi was so short that he will not have any problems going all-out on Sunday.
That’s another thing which is great about this final: These two will be as fresh as they can possibly be for a major-tournament meeting.
Nadal played a very long quarterfinal against Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon before meeting Djokovic in the semis. Seven years ago, when these two players met in the 2012 Australian Open final, Djokovic was coming off a 4:50 semifinal against Andy Murray.
This year, both men won their semifinals in under two hours, Djokovic in under 90 minutes.
You can’t really identify a whole lot of daylight — if any — between the paths these men have taken in Week 2 of the tournament. The quarterfinals and semifinals have featured quick matches and an absence of physical difficulty. Unlike the 2017 Australian Open, in which Nadal played the second semifinal and had to play nearly five hours against Grigor Dimitrov, the Friday semifinalist in 2019 — Djokovic — has no such worries about freshness.
It is clean. It is pure. It exists on even terms, this latest Australian Open final.
Rafole 53 — a tennis version of Super Bowl LIII — exists without imbalances or the perception thereof.
May the better man win.
Thank you, Novak, for demolishing Pouille in a manner which made this even-steven landscape possible. Again, you are very helpful.