Stefanos Tsitsipas ain’t walkin’ through that door.
That was the reality of Rafael Nadal’s situation Sunday night in Melbourne, Australia. Rafa’s reward for an easy draw at the 2019 Australian Open was a return to the final, his fourth this decade and his 25th major final overall.
However, life often carries trade-offs. In exchange for something good, we have to live with something difficult or challenging. Rafa had to realize that in exchange for an uncomplicated journey to the final, without the loss of a single set, he was not sufficiently prepared for a supreme test.
He and his beefed-up new serve were not prepared for the best return of serve in men’s tennis history.
He was not prepared to have to hit with small margins to very precise targets against suffocating defense.
He was not prepared to have to play out of his comfort zone, or confront the realization that he would have to be profoundly ambitious just to have any sort of say in the outcome of a match.
He was not prepared for Novak Djokovic, the undisputed ruler of men’s tennis in early 2019.
This isn’t Nadal’s fault so much as it was an organic product of circumstances. Maybe, if Nadal had played Roger Federer in the semifinals instead of Tsitsipas, he would have been able to play his way into form and acquire the urgency needed to hit a better, bigger ball against Djokovic. Playing Federer might have carried a much greater risk of losing his semifinal and not making Sunday’s final, but this is where we return to the notion and reality of a trade-off in life.
Neither Nadal nor Federer were going to beat this iteration of Djokovic — let’s be clear about that — but Rafa probably needed the battle-sharpening dimensions of a Federer semifinal to enter this final with antennae and instincts which could at least give him a chance against Nole.
Tsitsipas — like Frances Tiafoe and Tomas Berdych — simply couldn’t equip Nadal for battle. That’s not something Rafa could control, but again, life’s trade-offs are very imperfect things.
Djokovic, on the other hand, was not imperfect on Sunday against Nadal. He was essentially perfect.
Yeah, technically, Djokovic made just over 10 unforced errors in three sets against Nadal — SLACKER!
That is, of course, an obscenely low number. Through the fifth game of the third set — basically 2.5 sets of suffocating, supreme tennis which did not allow Nadal, a 17-time major champion, to draw any air to breathe into his lungs — Djokovic had committed only NINE UNFORCED ERRORS.
He was borderline unplayable… against one of the all-time greats. He gave Nadal the Spaniard’s first straight-set loss in a major final. He did to Rafa what Rafa did to Federer at Roland Garros in the 2008 final. It was a thrashing of the highest quality vintage.
Djokovic is sitting at a poker table in possession of a heaping stack of chips. He is cleaning up and on a roll.
The numbers are simple yet loaded with the weight of historical achievement and present-day dominance of men’s tennis:
— Three majors won in a row, putting Djokovic within one 2019 Roland Garros title of a second career “Novak Slam.”
— Seven Australian Opens, breaking his tie with Federer for the most all time on the men’s side.
— 15 major titles, passing Pete Sampras and establishing himself as third all time… with Rafa now very much in his sights for second, and Federer now only five titles away for first. Given how efficient Djokovic was in this final, and given that his body seems to have a lot more mileage left than the injury-prone Rafa (who triumphed at this tournament by playing it without injury or incident), Djokovic has a very real chance of becoming the all-time major singles title leader when it’s all said and done.
If he can beat Nadal in the 2019 Roland Garros final — doing something no one has ever been able to do up to this point in time — Djokovic will be in position to dominate men’s tennis to the fullest extent witnessed in the Open Era.
Let’s be clear about this: Rod Laver won the 1969 Grand Slam, but he didn’t win any majors in 1970, nor did he win the 1968 U.S. Open. The Rocket won four majors in a row. If Djokovic beats Nadal in the Roland Garros final, he will have achieved a first in the Open Era, and would then have a chance to not only win the second (classic) calendar Grand Slam of the Open Era, but do so while also winning six majors in a row in the process.
Federer won six out of seven majors in 2005 and 2006, but he never won four in a row, within or beyond a single calendar year. He never beat Nadal in a Roland Garros final.
Djokovic has set himself up to surpass Nadal and Federer in several massively important historical ways this year, now that he has bagged this Australian Open title and sent a message to Rafa about the difficulty involved in turning the tables.
Some readers of this column will be highly annoyed by this act of immediately looking forward to Paris in the spring on clay, but I have to say this in response to anyone who might be ticked off:
What else do you expect me to do?
A) This was a drama-free final which was shorter than the women’s final. The men’s Australian Open was terrific through four rounds and then turned into a series of blowouts throughout the final three rounds, save for a moderately interesting pair of quarterfinals among players who had no chance against Rafole in the semis.
B) Whenever the Big 3 meet in a major final, the weight of tennis history shifts. That is a central part of what is so special about this period in the story of men’s tennis, a period which will not last forever and should be savored while it is still here: History looms heavily over these matches. When the match is over, the recalibrated landscape is a big part of the story. To NOT look ahead to Roland Garros would be, in my mind, a neglectful act.
Speaking of neglect: Novak Djokovic didn’t neglect a single aspect of his tennis game. It is firing on all cylinders, and instructively, Djokovic doesn’t even worry now about the final rounds of majors. He just destroys opponents with supreme efficiency.
Remember when Djokovic had to endure a choppy and uneven semifinal before bossing a final?
2011 Wimbledon against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. 2014 Wimbledon against Grigor Dimitrov. 2015 Wimbledon against Richard Gasquet — a comfortable win, but hardly a dominant performance.
Last year, Djokovic began to play elite semifinals AND dominant finals. He did so at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He carried that into Melbourne. In his last three major semifinals and his last three major finals, Djokovic has played at or near a very lofty height. As has been the case with each of the Big 3 in this remarkable era in the life of men’s tennis, Djokovic is improbably but genuinely raising the bar, precisely when it didn’t seem possible that anyone could.
We will see if Nadal or anyone else can clear that high bar later this year.
If not, Novak Djokovic could soon be No. 1 not just in terms of ATP rankings points, if you get my drift.
#WeGonnaSee, as always, but this season and the upcoming rendezvous with history at Roland Garros just became hundreds of times more interesting. Novak Djokovic’s wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am tennis dominance could lead to a slamming good time as 2019 unfolds.