Novak Djokovic raised pre-match praise on his final Australian Open opponent because it was deeply known. "Nadal has historically throughout my life and career been the greatest rival I've ever played against all surfaces," he said of their 52-matched draw, which had participated 27-25 in his favor. "Some fighting we had against each other was a good turning point in my career. I feel they have made me rethink my game."
Of course, he's right. He and Rafael Nadal lift each other and rally to unseen heights. And they seemed ready to do it again. Here in the championship finals was the "biggest rival" serving unbreakable, cruising through the drawing that he never has on hardcourt, and comes from two full days of rest – and still Djokovic wonders him 6-3, 6-2, 6 -3 , to his third equal title. This is Novak Djokovic's world now, and no one, not even his greatest threat, can find oxygen to live in.
The Stakes may have come to Nadal. He looked cagey through the first hour: misfiring on the forehand, fumbling the ball under his holy pre-throw ritual, settling for a chip return by a gentle second servant, even whiffing on a land course. These were all uncharacteristic signs of frazzle from a guy who apparently bore out of the uterus and sprinted right back to baseline, called in to go three sets. Djokovic ran forward and won 13 of the first 14 points to start out, and the tone of this last did not change significantly after that.
Four minutes in the fight he jumped and nailed backhand winners.
Djokovic took the first set after losing just one point on his servant, cool absorbing Rafa's best thing.
How do you get some traction against a guy playing so? Against 99 percent of the trip, Rafa doesn't even have to ask the question. The answer is clear. Throughout his career, and especially in this tournament, Nadal's forehand has been the highest ball. With good pace and demented top spin, it is the epitome of a "heavy" ball – an opponent feels they have been tasked with batting back a watermelon. When Rafa plays M.O. is to bludge the forehand crosscourt right into the opponent's backhand, typically the weaker wing, to evoke a weak response. But what makes his matchup with Djokovic so remarkable is the fact that the Serbian backhand could not have been better designed to stop this abuse. At 6-foot-2, Djokovic probably thinks he is not struggling with the high jump, the flexibility to hit it cleanly in uncomfortable angles and another hand on the racket, giving him extra stability and power. (Compare with Federer, who, apart from the 2017 godly streak, when he was able to half volley everything from his laces, has struggled with Rafa's forehand, the one-handed lane.) It also helps Djokovics reason possess more broadly, one of the best two-handed holders ever, and certainly the best ever out of defensive positions, where his Gumby joints let him produce scary pop and depth at the end of his reach.
As it turned out, Djokovic was rarely just to be defensive in this fight. Nadal forehand was a toy for him.
This is how many good shots, Rafa would have to align with each other to actually break through the defense and earn a winner by itself plus a Djokovic thumb-up of approval:
This level proved to be unsustainable. Rafa also lost the second set, having only won five points at Djokovic's servant. In the third, he wanted only four more. With no real stress in his service game, sure he would win in a neutral rally, Djokovic began to have some fun. This is a totally unfair answer when someone hits a much better drop shot than you:
Djokovic hit three drop shots in this game and then loose and legendary to the end, even headlong a scam in the last battle of the battle, and never turn into his crazy, jersey-shaped mood. Nadal is rarely on the receiving end of such a breezy destruction. After the match, a reporter drew a parallel to the straight sentence route Nadal delivered to Stefanos Tsitsipas in their semifinals. The Spanish responded with good humor and very honesty:
[Tsitsipas] has not been destroyed enough times to know that it can happen on a tennis court. I'm not new to this. I know these things happen. Even the best players in history have happened. I'm not saying I've been destroyed. I've played against a player who was at the highest level possible, in my opinion tonight.
Maybe Djokovic was a player at the highest level possible. Going to 34 winners and nine undisturbed failures against Rafael Nadal in a major finals seem to meet these criteria. However, based on what he has done before, feels like he still has a higher gear. It can be nothing if no one on tour is able to push him to it.
Having claimed his record seventh Australian Open, these hard courts are all his. Later this season he will come to Rafa's laugh and then Federer's grass. With his total number of majors rising to 15, the players of some 17 and 20 are also not feeling particularly safe. This time last year Djokovic came out of the elbow operation, staggering through the hard high season, and raised three equal losses. Now he's eaten up three equal majores. Every ground surface belongs to Novak Djokovic, all the time again. All that others can do is wait.