- Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic contest another high-stakes match in what promises to be must-see TV on Sunday.
- The old rivals return to the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne to decide who will lift the Australian Open title.
- It is traditionally a competition dominated by Djokovic, who will be gunning for a record seventh trophy.
- But Nadal has enjoyed incredible form this month and has dumped three really promising "Next-Gen" talents out of the tournament.
- Still, there is one clear winner heading into Sunday's final.
It's happened again.
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, two of sport's oldest and greatest rivals, have been pitted against each other in what promises to be yet another must-see showpiece.
The stakes are high, and go beyond lifting the first Grand Slam title of the 2019 season the Australian Open .
Victory for Nadal would move his major record to 18. Though that is two titles behind Roger Federer's mighty haul of 20, Nadal could potentially cut that gap again to just one should he go on to win the French Open later in the season.
With 11 Roland Garros titles already in his trophy cabinet, it is clear that the clay court major is his speciality, and further success there means he could quite feasibly eclipse Federer in the very near future. A Grand Slam-winning run in 2019 could therefore see Nadal challenge Federer for the right to be called the greatest of all time (GOAT) .
But Djokovic won't want to do Nadal any favors at the Rod Laver Arena this weekend. He, too, has the same ambition as the Spaniard: to topple Federer as the sport's best. A 14-time Grand Slam champion, Djokovic won two of the four majors available last year and he is fit, on form, and will want more success in 2019 so he too can close the gap on the GOAT.
Victory on Sunday would earn Djokovic his seventh Australian Open title. Nobody in men's singles history, not even Federer, has won that many trophies in Melbourne.
History, therefore, beckons the winner. High stakes indeed.
But who will win?
Nadal is the 'Next-Gen' killer
As the big three of men's tennis (Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic) grew older, the best of the male "Next-Gen" athletes aged 21 and under were supposedly getting ready to challenge the elite. Stefanos Tsitsipas, 20, showed that more than most when he slayed Federer in the Australian Open quarter-final on January 20.
But Nadal has developed a merciless reputation as the powerful warrior from Manacor in Spain, becoming the feared "Next-Gen" killer. He demolished the 19-year-old Alex de Minaur in the Round of 32, thrashed Frances Tiafoe, 21, in the quarter-final, and trounced Tsitsipas in the semi. What's perhaps more impressive is that he has gotten to the final without dropping a single set.
But Nadal is not facing a "Next-Gen" talent on Sunday. No, Nadal is up against Djokovic, the world number one ranked male player who saved his best tennis of the tournament until the semi-final stage, when he needed just 83 minutes to pummel Lucas Pouille in straight sets on Friday.
Djokovic has history on his side
Nadal and Djokovic trade wins and losses in fairly equal measure, though Djokovic is currently in the lead with 27 wins against 25 losses.
But there is one critical factor when it comes to their head-to-head record, and that is court surface. Nadal is the master on clay, while Djokovic is almost unbeatable on a hard court.
When it comes to outdoor hard courts, Djokovic has Nadal beat 14 times out of 19, losing on only five occasions.
The last time Nadal defeated Djokovic on a hard court was almost six years ago, when he upset the Serb in straight sets 6-3, 6-4 at the China Open in 2013. Since then, Djokovic has won four in a row (six, if you count indoor hard courts, too).
To beat Nadal, who has improved his serve throughout the tournament, Djokovic's returning game must be on-point on Sunday.
Game Insight Group (GIG), a tennis research firm in Australia, ranked Djokovic as the number one returner in the whole of the ATP when assessing his player "DNA" before the tournament.
GIG's assessment has proved accurate. This is because Australian Open statistics show that Djokovic has won 125 return points from his six matches in this year's competition, ranking him third behind only Pouille and Marin Cilic. Djokovic is second when it comes to second serve return points won, with 124 points won from the second serve.
Djokovic's dominance at the Australian Open itself, and his ability to powerfully return the ball to Nadal off the Spaniard's serve, could combine to crumble what had previously been an optimized Australian Open outing from Nadal.
Later in the match, Nadal's forehand and Djokovic's backhand will prove critical during rallies. But GIG, overall, sides with Djokovic when it comes to rally craft. This trait of his is "the best" in tennis, GIG said recently .
Head-to-head history, a superior rally craft, and an on-point returning game mean there is one clear winner for Sunday's match and that winner will be Djokovic.
- Rafael Nadal just thrashed Frances Tiafoe and couldn't help but marvel at the American's ripped body in his post-match interview
- Novak Djokovic says his son was more interested in Spider-Man than in his Australian Open semifinal
- Rafael Nadal broke down in tears after making it to his 25th Grand Slam final without dropping a single set all tournament