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Beyond the Baseline

Aussie final gives Rafael Nadal another opportunity to solve Novak Djokovic

Rafael Nadal was 0-6 vs. Novak Djokovic last year, including 0-2 in major finals. (Icon SMI; Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Novak Djokovic's remarkable 2011 season included a 43-match winning streak, three Grand Slam tournament victories, 10 titles overall and a 70-6 record. But the most mind-boggling number of all was this: The Serb went 6-0 against Rafael Nadal, all in finals and twice in majors.

That Djokovic flipped the script so suddenly against the fiercest competitor in tennis was the story of the year. Djokovic had never defeated Nadal in a final before last year and no one foresaw his turning the tables so quickly and decisively, especially considering that Nadal had won three Grand Slam titles in 2010 and prevailed in both meetings with Djokovic. But Djokovic handled the Spaniard in the biggest tournaments, on three different surfaces, including twice on Nadal's beloved red clay. When Djokovic beat him for a sixth consecutive time, in the U.S. Open final in September, Nadal looked broken both in spirit and body, bending over with his hands on his knees, the athlete's signal for a tap-out.

Nadal, a 10-time Grand Slam champion, hasn't spent much time as anyone's punching bag in his career, and he vowed after the U.S. Open to "accept the challenge and work" to halt Djokovic's dominance. Nadal's first opportunity to do just that comes Sunday, when the top two players in the world meet in the Australian Open final (3;30 a.m., ESPN2), their Open Era-record third consecutive clash in a major-championship match.

"I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I've won six finals we played in 2011 and I've had lots of success against him," said Djokovic, who trails the overall head-to-head 16-13. "On the other hand, it's a new year. It's a new challenge. It's a different situation."

If Nadal needed anything to feel good about his chances, all he had to do was tune into Djokovic's semifinal slugfest with Andy Murray on Friday. If Nadal wins the title, he might want to send a fruit basket to the Scot, who kept the world No. 1 on the court for four hours and 50 minutes of brutal tennis that drove Djokovic, as he described it, into a "physical crisis." Djokovic, 24, managed to stay on track to become the fourth man in the Open Era to win at least three Australian Open titles, but how much did the 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5 victory take out of him?

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"There is no secret it is going to be physical again," Djokovic said of facing Nadal in the final. "I will do my best to recover. ... I think that's going to be crucial for me to recover and to be able to perform my best, because Rafa is fit."

Nadal, 25, will surely be well rested after winning his semifinal one day before Djokovic played Murray. The extra day of rest, as well as the confidence gained from the terrific shotmaking he showed at times in his comeback victory against Roger Federer on Thursday, puts Nadal in good position as he tries to win his second Australian Open title. Nadal, however, downplayed the freshness advantage, noting that at the 2009 Australian Open, he played a five-hour-plus semifinal against Fernando Verdasco, had one day off and then won the title in a four-and-a-half-hour five-setter against Federer, who had two days to prepare for the final.

"Having one day off, I believe you are not in big trouble," Nadal said.

Notwithstanding his injury scare before the tournament, when he broke down in tears thinking that knee pain might force him to withdraw, Nadal has seemed very relaxed, even as he acknowledges that his plan to play more aggressively while using a heavier racket remains a work in progress.

"The improvements are not complete," Nadal said. "Probably I need a few more months and tournaments. ... I need to play a little bit better to have chances, but I am happy about how I am doing. I think I'm in the right way to compete against the top players.  I did here winning against [No. 7 Tomas Berdych], against the No. 3 [Federer]. So it's a fantastic way to start the season.  Now is another big, big test.  I don't know if I am enough ready to win the match, but I believe that I can do it and I'm going to fight for it."

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