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Match Point

THEY’RE No. 1 and No. 2. One is Serbian and the other is Spaniard. One swats that forehand as a right-hander while the other is a muscular lefty. The two have met 52 times: Novak Djokovic with 27 wins vs. 25 from Rafael Nadal.

It’s the Australian Open final today, Jan 27. at 4:30 p.m. (PHL time).

Choosing one over the other is hard. In major finals, it’s Nadal with a 4-3 edge. But when you examine their outdoor hardcourt battles, Djokovic has a commanding 14-5 lead.

In Melbourne the past two weeks, the top seeds have been invincible. Rafa hasn’t lost a set while Novak steamrolled past Lucas Pouille in the semis. Said the Frenchman: “Novak is playing like really, really fast, really low. He’s close to the baseline. Always he has good placement in any situation. Even in defense, he’s going to put the ball really deep maybe 10, 20 centimeters from the baseline.”

Novak and Rafa are at the peak of their games and both are raring to fight for tennis’ heavyweight championship.

My pick? Unlike Dr. Rhoel Dejaño who idolizes Djokovic, I’m a Nadal fan. And with his improved serve and forehand, I hope the Mallorcan-native will win his 18th major. Not having played in a tournament since his US Open injury last September, he has resurfaced as a hungry Spanish bullfighter.

Stefanos Tsitsipas said of Nadal: “He has this, I don’t know, talent that no other player has. His game style has something that it kind of makes the other half of your brain work more than it usually does. I’m trying to understand, but I cannot find an explanation.”

I hope Rafa wins. But that’s far from certain. If we look at the odds, they favor his nemesis, who’s a -135 favorite (bet $135 to win $100).

But while the choice of winner (prize money: $2.9 million) is no guarantee, what’s guaranteed is a combat; a baseline warfare loaded with two-handed backhand bombs, delicate drop shots, volleys, slice shots, screams, fist pumps.

The only time the two met in the Oz Open final was seven years ago. It lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes with Novak winning 7-5 in the fifth set. At Wimbledon last July, Novak won 10-8 in the fifth (five hours and 15 minutes).

Tonight, are we expecting another five-hour, five-set marathon? Maybe. It will be a Gladiator-like bloodbath with the Head and Babolat rackets as swords; an Ironman contest between a Lacoste-wearing 31-year-old vs. Nike’s 32-year-old star. It will be about longevity. It will be about dominance. Because while the likes of Tsitsipas, Zverev, Thiem and Khachanov want to triumph in the majors, they’re not welcome yet.

Including Roger Federer’s 20 majors and Nadal’s 17 and Djokovic’s 14, the Big Three have won 51 of the last 62 Grand Slam trophies since 2003. The rest of the world has won only 11 in the past 15 years. This is more than dominance. It’s a near-monopoly and dictatorship by Roger-Rafa-Novak. Today will be 52 of 62 major wins (with an 84% win ratio) for the Big 3.

Rafa in four sets. Vamos!


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