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  • Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet in a Grand Slam final for the eighth time. Our SI Tennis panel of experts preview the match, highlighting keys for both players and making predictions.
By The SI Staff
January 25, 2019

The men's final at the Australian Open is set: It'll be No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal. 

Sunday's match will mark the 53rd time the two champions have met in their careers, and it'll be the eighth time they play in a Grand Slam final. Djokovic leads the all-time series 27-25, but Nadal has a 4-3 edge in Slam finals. 

Below, our SI Tennis panel of experts previews what shapes up to be a fantastic match. It will air on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 3:30 a.m. EST on ESPN. 

Who has been more impressive getting here?

Jon Wertheim: An hour ago I would’ve said Nadal, who hasn't been broken since the first round and hasn't lost a set all tournament. But I just saw Djokovic give a tennis lesson to Lucas Pouille, beating him in roughly the time it will take you to read this sentence. Say this: the top two seeds have made it clear that they are a completely different GPS coordinates than the rest of the field.

Stanley Kay: As flawless as Djokovic played Friday against Pouille, Nadal has been more impressive this tournament. He’s yet to drop a set, and he’s only been pushed to a tiebreaker once. Recall that Nadal’s fitness—specifically, whether he could withstand the grind of a Grand Slam on hard courts—was a major talking point ahead of this tournament, especially after he pulled out of Abu Dhabi and Brisbane. But instead of wearing down, Nadal has become more dominant as the tournament has progressed. Djokovic has played well, but he hasn’t looked quite as sharp over the last two weeks, dropping sets to Daniil Medvedev and Denis Shapovalov. 

Jamie Lisanti While Djokovic has been superb—and rather untested—Nadal's actually been more impressive throughout this tournament. Part of this is due to history: as much as Nadal reigns over Paris' dirt, Djokovic has developed a similar stranglehold on Melbourne's hardcourts. Even after his struggles with an elbow injury and loss in quarterfinals last year, we still expect him to dominate down under. But Nadal? Somehow, even after a November ankle surgery, even as his body continues to periodically succumb to his punishing brand of tennis, the Spaniard has rebounded to advance to the final without dropping a set. It’s incredible. 

Daniel Rapaport: Both have them have been impressive, particularly in their respective semifinal beatdowns, but neither have had to face a truly threatening opponent yet. The highest seed Nadal played was Stefanos Tsistipas, a 20-year-old making his first Slam semifinal appearance. The highest seed Djokovic played was Kei Nishikori, who retired in the second set having won two of the first 10 games. But, as the saying goes, you can only beat what's in front of you. Djokovic dropped two sets on his path to the final, while Nadal hasn't dropped any. Zero is less than two. I'll go with Rafa. 

Tristan Jung: Nadal coming back from injury and not dropping a set has been more impressive. Nadal has won 58.9 percent of points this tournament, which is an astounding number. Djokovic is not far behind at 58.1 percent, but he also benefitted from a retirement from Nishikori, which makes the Serb's run slightly less impressive.

What are the keys to the match for Djokovic?

JW: The fallback is always “serve well.” But I think “return well” is just as much a key. The Nadal serve has been uncommonly strong all tournament. Djokovic‘s ability to get into the points will be critical.

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SK: After tweaking his motion in the offseason, Nadal has served incredibly well this tournament; he hasn’t been broken since his first match against Duckworth. But he hasn’t faced a returner like Novak Djokovic. If Djokovic is returning well, he’ll have the edge. 

JL: Take advantage of history. Over the last decade, Djokovic has won five of his six Aussie Open titles. It’s important for him to remember that dominance—and how that dominance could affect Nadal mentally in crucial moments—during the match. Tactically, Djokovic needs to utilize his backhand to open up the court against Nadal, particularly by going cross-court to open up his backhand down the line. Nadal’s lefty forehand can be fatal, but Djokovic has the skill set to neutralize it.

DR: He needs to get into Nadal's service games. Nadal is serving maybe as well as he has in his entire career, so it would be massive mentally if Djokovic can at least give himself some break opportunities early in the match. And his backhand needs to be at its devestating best—we know most of the rallies will be between Nadal's forehand and Djokovic's backhand. He has to have the flat, down-the-line one working. 

TJ: The head-to-head, as everyone will tell you, is 27-25 in favor of Djokovic, but what's more interesting is that after his devastating loss at the 2009 Madrid Masters, Djokovic is 23-11 against Nadal. The biggest difference is that Djokovic has improved his serve significantly throughout the last decade. While one might not think serving is the key to a Djokovic win, his ability to serve his way out of trouble is going to make or break him. In the Wimbledon semifinal last year, Djokovic hit 23 aces, the most he's ever hit against Nadal by far. Nadal's toughest matches in Grand Slams over the years have been against players who had really good serving days (Del Potro, Cilic, Muller), and Djokovic needs the free points to keep Nadal at bay. The courts have been playing fast this year, which should play into Djokovic's hands.

What are the keys to the match for Nadal?

JW: It’s unlikely that he will rout Djokovic as easily as he has routed his first six opponents. How will he handle the resistance? I also think that he might have some scar tissue left from their Wimbledon match.

SK: Nadal has twice lost after being up a break in the fifth set of an Australian Open final—in ’12 against Djokovic and ’17 against Federer. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine this match going five. Nadal's improved serve—he won 85% of first-serve points and 71% of second-serve points in the semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas—could pay off in a potential decider. 

It’s also worth watching Nadal at the net. He won 18 of 22 net points against Tsitsipas, and nine of 11 against Frances Tiafoe. We tend to think of Nadal as a baseline counterpuncher, but his net game could prove decisive. 

JL: Nadal’s court positioning when returning serve is always an topic of discussion, but it will be especially important for him against Djokovic in the final. He’s also been very aggressive during his matches here in Melbourne, and he’ll need to maintain that to keep pace. After beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals, Nadal said that after a long layoff, he was fueled by the crowd’s “unbelievable energy” during the match. It remains to be seen which way the fans will lean for the final (I’m expecting a roar on every point, for both sides) but Nadal will need to feed off that energy and excitement, especially in the pivotal points. 

DR: I think Djokovic has a sizable advantage if this goes to a fifth set, so Rafa would do well to get his nose out in front. His best chance of doing that is to continue getting free points and stay aggressive; Djokovic is so incredibly difficult to hit through right now, so Rafa should mix it up and come to the net, as Stan suggested. 

TJ: Nadal has adapted very well to the quick conditions in Melbourne. He has only been broken twice, both times in the first round by Duckworth. Against Tsitsipas, Tiafoe and Berdych, he completely neutralized their big hitting with some vintage defensive work. The key for Nadal is just to be Nadal, honestly. He will need to hit 6-7 amazing shots in key moments, outwork Djokovic, and stay mentally tough as the match goes on. One thing to look out for is how much Nadal will attack the net; in the Wimbledon semifinal, he approached the net 51 times and won 76 percent of the points. He will likely employ similar tactics against Djokovic. Like Federer, Nadal has learned he needs to shorten points to extend his career. Against Djokovic, this will become even more critical.

What would a win for Djokovic mean?

JW: A great deal, which is part of the great fun of this era. Every result carries so much freight and weight. Djokovic would win his third straight major and edge deeper into the GOAT pasture. He would surpass Pete Sampras with 15 majors and become the first player to win the Australian Open seven times. He would also extend that firewall between himself and the rest of the field.

SK: Sole possession of third place on the all-time Grand Slams list, surpassing Pete Sampras and trailing only Federer and Nadal. Djokovic will have to win more than 15 slams to have a plausible GOAT case, but barring injury, he’ll likely be the favorite at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Don’t bet against Djokovic winning three majors this year, which would put him at 17 over his career—just three behind Federer. 

JL:Let’s look at the facts (h/t to Greg Sharko): If Djokovic wins on Sunday, he will surpass Roy Emerson and Roger Federer for the most Australian Open men's singles titles of all time. Bigger picture, he will also surpass Pete Sampras for the third-most Grand Slam titles of all time (15) behind Federer's 20 and Nadal's 17. Historically and statistically, this would mean a ton.

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In the emotional and spiritual sense—characteristics we know Djokovic values highly—another Australian Open title after last year’s quarterfinals loss to Hyeon Chung would be an incredibly validating experience for him. To overcome his issues—both physical and mental—to restructure his team, revamp his serve, recover his elbow and reevaluate his entire game, and then win three major titles in a row? There’s nothing more satisfying for an athlete (or a person in general) than seeing hard work pay off and a plan successfully put into action. 

DR: We'd start discussing Novak in Australia in the same sentence as Nadal at Roland Garros and Federer at Wimbledon. It will become his signature major, if it hasn't already. He'd put himself in position to win his second Nole Slam at the French Open, where he'll face significantly less expectations due to Nadal's history there. 

TJ: There have been some doubts on whether Djokovic is truly back to the untouchable player that overran the sport in 2015-16. While he won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Shanghai Masters, his uncharacteristic losses to Zverev, Khachanov and Bautista-Agut in important matches late in the year hinted that he hadn't made it all the way back to his former self. Djokovic's awful start to 2018, where he couldn't beat journeymen like Martin Klizan and Taro Daniel, is in the past, but it's unclear whether he can be penciled in as the favorite to win every non-clay Grand Slam until 2020. A win here, especially a convincing one, over his biggest rival would do much to silence what few doubts remain.

What would a win for Nadal mean?

JW: A great deal. He would take down the top player. He would announce that he’s back (remember this is his first tournament since the U.S. Open). He would win a double career slam—each one at least twice— edge ever closer to Roger Federer’s 20 majors. This with the French Open up next...

SK: A Nadal win would put him within striking distance of Roger Federer’s Slam total, narrowing Federer’s lead to just two. In all likelihood, Nadal will cut the deficit to one by winning the French Open. And if Nadal wins the first two Slams of the calendar year for the first time in his career, he’ll have two milestones in sight: the calendar Grand Slam and Federer’s mark of 20 major titles. If that’s the case, Federer might be playing for his GOAT legacy at Wimbledon. 

JL: The last time Nadal won the Australian Open was in 2009, so winning again after a decade of trying would mean a lot, perhaps more than winning any other major at this point in his career. Against Djokovic in the final, Nadal has a chance to join Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only men to win each Grand Slam twice (he would be the first in the Open Era). Similar to Djokovic, a title here in Melbourne would validate missing the end of the 2018 and the ATP Finals. It would also go a long way for Nadal’s confidence—at this point in his career with his injuries, knowing that he can recover and return to winning majors after surgery is a big deal. 

DR: It would mean he's now more likely than not to finish his career with more majors than Roger Federer. Rafa owns a 6-3 lead in Grand Slam finals over Fed, and a win would mean he'd have a 5-3 advantage in Slam finals over Djokovic. If he follows it up with a French Open final, he moves into the driver's seat in the GOAT debate. So, really, it couldn't possibly mean much more.

TJ: Vengeance. Nadal has suffered three crushing losses at Melbourne this decade. If you reverse the 2017 Australian Open loss to Federer and the 2012 loss to Djokovic—he was a break up in the fifth set in both matches—he would be level with Federer in Grand Slam titles right now. And then there was the 2014 loss to Wawrinka, where Nadal suffered a back injury in the warmup and then lost comprehensively. This tournament has bedeviled Rafa since his 2009 win. Other than the lost finals, he's had two retirements due to injury, embarrassing losses to players like Berdych, Ferrer and Verdasco. It would also prove that Nadal will be a force to be reckoned with on all surfaces for as long as he can stay healthy.

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Who wins and why?

JW: It's a true tossup, but I’m feeling Nadal In five sets. The tennis pendulum swings in funny ways, and you just have a feeling it’s Nadal's time. He has played better than anyone overall. He serving absurdly well. He is unencumbered by injury and he spent less time on the court.

SK: I’m sticking with my original pick: Djokovic in five sets. He's has won his last seven hardcourt matches against Nadal, and I think he’ll make that eight on Sunday.

JL:  This match will be a treat. Both men are in top form and we should be in for an entertaining, electric and emotionally exhausting match. But this is Djokovic’s turf. While Nadal has been impressive on this surface after injury, it’s Djokovic who has been on a steady rise since reclaiming his spot at the top of men’s tennis. Djokovic won the last time the pair played in Melbourne, earning a win after five hours and 53 minutes on court, the longest match in Grand Slam finals history. Sunday’s final likely won’t be as lengthy due to the super tiebreak rule, but Djokovic will claim the title over Nadal in four hard-fought sets. 

DR: Djokovic in four. He has the upper hand on Rafa on hard courts, and this one's playing quick. The backhand will prove the difference. 

TJ: Nadal in a five-setter that lasts over 4.5 hours. I think this one will come down to the new superbreaker rule in the fifth set, which would be a hell of a way to end a match with such deep historical implicaitons. 

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