Saturday, January 28, 2012

AUS OPEN 2012: Men's Final Preview

Rafael Nadal ESP (2) vs  Novak Djokovic SRB (1)   
Here is my prediction for the 2012 Australian Open Men's Singles Championship Match. My (incorrect) prediction for the Women's Singles Championship Match is also available. This year I previously correctly predicted 1 of 2 men's semifinals and predicted 4 of 4 men's quarterfinals correctly. I also correctly predicted 2 of 2 women's semifinals and 4 of 4 women's quarterfinals.

Men's Semifinals Review.
R. Nadal ESP d. R. Federer SUI, 6-7(5) 6-2 7-6(5) 6-4Federer-Nadal XXVII was highly anticipated by fans of both players, since it was only the second time the two great players had met in the semifinal of a major (Roland Garros 2005) as well as only the second time the two had met at Australia's major tournament (2009 Men's Final). In both previous meetings, Nadal had come away the victor, and as it turned out that would be the case in this match as well.

Fans of Federer had reasons to be confident going into the match, since the Swiss player was on a winning streak stemming from the end of the 2011 season and had demolished Nadal the last time the two had met. However, during this match it became clear pretty quickly that Federer was not going to be producing the scintillating tennis he displayed against Juan Martin del Potro in the when he started mis-hitting balls on both wings despite pulling out the first set in a tiebreak after blowing a 4-1 lead. Although the person who won the first set had won 20 of 26 matches in their storied rivalry this time Nadal was able to turn that stat around. (The person winning the 3rd set of their matches when the first two sets are split has always won the match.)

It will be interesting to see how Federer reacts to losing this match. Surely he knows that as he gets older there will be more results like this and the high points like winning the year-end championships (for a record 6th time!) will be fewer and far between, but more meaningful precisely for that reason.

N. Djokovic SRB d. A. Murray GBR, 6-3 3-6 6-7(4) 6-1 7-5The end result of the match was not surprising but the quality of the match most definitely was. This was a rematch of the 2011 Australian Open final where Murray was completely outmatched by his contemporary. This time it was a deadly war of attrition. After splitting the first two sets by identical scores (with very different story lines: in the second set Murray was able to win the set despite being down 0-2) the third set was absolutely jaw dropping. It took a half an hour to play the first three games of the set, and after saving set points against him at 4-5, Murray served for the set at 6-5 but was promptly broken to lead to a tiebreak, which the newly combative Scot won 7-4, picking up the set after a truly astonishing 88 minutes of brilliant tennis from both men. In the fourth set Djokovic responded to losing the middle set by pummeling the ball and moving like a man possessed to easily claim the 4th set 6-1 in 25 minutes. In the 5th set, Djokovic was able to break in the 5th game and eventually led 5-2 on Murray's serve but when serving for the match at 5-3 Murray was able to break back and even the match at 5-all in the 5th. Just getting to that point in a major contest with Djokovic, who had embarassed Murray in last year's final on this same court, is a major accomplishment for the Scot, and should bode well for his campaign to win a major in the near future. After 5-all Djokovic was able to hold to go up 6-5 and a somewhat lose service game by Murray led to him facing two breakpoints at 15-40 which were also match points. Djokovic was able to convert on his first chance and now is in his 4th major final in the last 5 grand slam tournaments. This was clearly one of the best matches of the tournament (and most likely of the year) and could overshadow the championship match to follow.

Men's Final Preview.
For the third consecutive major (and 7th consecutive time) the two top ranked players in the world, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, are facing each other in the final of a major. Djokovic has won their two previous major finals (Wimbledon 2011 and US Open 2011) as well as in 4 other Masters Series finals in 2011. However, even with six consecutive wins over Nadal, the 10-time major champion from Spain still leads the 4-time major champion from Serbia in their career head-to-head 16-13. It should be noted that prior to 2011, Djokovic had lost all 5 singles finals the two had contested. However, even before the 2011 year Djokovic had led Nadal 7-5 in hard court matches and now leads 10-5 on that surface. Astonishingly, the two have played each other even more times than the Federer and Nadal. Really, we should be referring to their thirtieth upcoming professional match as Nadal-Djokovic XXX (though that could mean something else!). And since both are in their early 20s, we have many more matches to look forward to between these two great champions.

Can any player really beat Rafael Nadal SEVEN times in a row? If someone had told me that Novak Djokovic would beat Nadal even three times in a row (especially twice in clay court finals) I would have said they were drunk. However, if there is anyone who can do it to Nadal it is Djokovic, who does to Nadal what Nadal does to Federer. Simply said, the match up is bad for the player on the losing end of the comparison. Nadal's strengths do not hurt Djokovic as much as they do Federer and the Serb is the only player who can not only match the Spaniard's supernatural defensive abilities but is probably the only player on tour who actually possesses a mental edge over Nadal. Major finals generally come down to the mental contest, and with the results of 2011 fresh in everyone's mind (especially Nadal's!), this is a distinct advantage to Djokovic.

What can Nadal do better than what he has done in the previous 6 finals he has lost to Djokovic? One thing would be to serve bigger, but he seems loathe to try that, and Djokovic is a better returner than Nadal anyway. Nadal does have a better chance in this final than either of the two major finals they played last year because Djokovic may not be at  100% due to the potentially pyrrhic victory he won over Murray in 4 hours, 53 minutes two days ago. However, Djokovic was not at his best physically (and not playing his best tennis) in the first two sets of the last hard-court major final the two played and still managed to gain a 2-0 set advantage and eventually win. Nadal is actually only 1-2 behind Djokovic ihead-to-head in major finals. If he wins tonight he can atleast even that statistic, and he can take comfort from the fact he has beaten Djokovic in a major final before, on a fast hard court no less. Nadal can look to the 2010 US Open final he won in 4-sets over Djokovic for inspiration but unfortunately for the Spaniard he will be playing a player who is playing better than that opponent tonight (probably).

MadProfessah's pick: Djokovic.

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