Rafael Nadal’s match fitness could be a deciding factor in Sunday’s Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic as tennis legends predict another marathon encounter.
Seven years after fighting out the longest final in grand slam history – won by Djokovic at Melbourne Park in five hours and 53 minutes – the two modern-day greats will meet for the 53rd time and contest their eight major decider.
Playing with uncharacteristic aggression, Nadal hasn’t been broken since the first round and has shortened points in contrast to his usual labour-intensive style.
It is likely no coincidence that the switch-up comes in his first competitive tournament since a knee injury forced him to retire in the semi-finals of last year’s US Open and since he underwent ankle surgery in November.
Former Wimbledon champion and two-time Australian Open runner-up Pat Cash questions how the Spaniard will fare if Djokovic forces another epic.
“I think the only question mark I have is how much match fitness Rafa has,” Cash told reporters at a Tennis Australia legends’ lunch in his honour.
“He’s played six pretty easy matches and that’s since the US Open. And Novak’s been pretty hardened.
“I think coming back from the ankle injury he’s been forced to step up and go for a few more shots and it’s paid dividends so far.
“Against Novak is a massive test of that technique and he will naturally draw back to the stuff he’s safe on which is running a lot, and I think that might be his undoing if he stops attacking.
“If it goes the distance, I think I’d have to fancy Novak.”
Cash noted that Nadal had proven his doubters wrong before, most notably at Melbourne Park in 2009 when he bounced back from a gruelling semi-final win over Fernando Verdasco to down Roger Federer in a five-set classic.
“Nobody picked him and yet he just ran over Federer in the fifth set,” Cash said.
“He’s absolutely phenomenal and he loves a challenge as well.”
Legends Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova both struggled to split the pair but were leaning towards Nadal winning his 18th major.
“He likes to come to the net more than Djokovic … he runs in there better than anybody,” Navratilova said.
“On this fast court I think it will pay off for him so that’s why I give him the slight edge.”
But Australian great Ken Rosewall was impressed by Djokovic’s semi-final demolition of Lucas Pouille, which took him just 83 minutes
“I picked Novak to win the tournament. He’s playing well and his semi-final win just showed how good he is playing,” Rosewall told AAP.
“But the same could be said for Rafa as well. The final match is really a flip of the coin. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go to five sets.”
Australian Associated Press