Australian Open: Physical and mental fitness the focus of finalists’ attention

Novak Djokovic will face old foe Rafa Nadal this morning. Pictures: AFP
Novak Djokovic will face old foe Rafa Nadal this morning. Pictures: AFP
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Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal were due to face each other in their third consecutive major final at the Australia Open this morning.

The rivalry between Nadal and Serb Djokovic appears set to challenge that of the Spaniard’s long double-act with former world No.1 Roger Federer. But where Nadal and Swiss Federer’s match-ups inspired mutual admiration, the Spaniard’s relationship with Djokovic, the man who poached his top ranking last year, is far more complex and the barbs have been flying from both camps.

Rafa Nadal leads head-to-head matches, 16-13. Picture: AFP/Getty

Rafa Nadal leads head-to-head matches, 16-13. Picture: AFP/Getty

Defending champion Djokovic, dragged into a near five-hour slog with fourth seed Andy Murray on Friday, had a day’s less rest to recover than Nadal, and was thus more happy to talk of their recent head-to-head record.

“I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I’ve won six finals the five or six times we played in 2011 and I’ve had lots of success against him,” said the 24-year-old Djokovic, who has a losing 13-16 record against Nadal, but has beaten him the last six times they have played.

The losses, all in finals, included last year’s Wimbledon and US Open tournaments. “It’s a different situation. He has maybe a day advantage over me for recovery and for getting ready for the finals.”

While pushed, Nadal finished his four-set semi-final against third seed Federer on Thursday full of running and brimful of confidence, having inflicted an eighth defeat on the Swiss in their record-equalling tenth grand slam encounter.

That allowed the 25-year-old the luxury of watching Djokovic close out the match against Murray, despite having appeared a panting, sweating wreck halfway through.

Djokovic, who also appeared to struggle in his quarter-final, blamed an allergy for giving him a blocked nose and breathing difficulties.

But ten-times grand slam champion Nadal said: “It’s funny, no? I saw the match yesterday on the TV when he was in the fifth set moving fantastically well, and they show images from two hours 50 minutes before and it seems like he was destroyed. So it is difficult to imagine that he has these problems. I don’t know.”

Nadal also dismissed the suggestion that his extra day’s rest was a huge advantage, given the Spaniard had recovered from a similar position to beat Roger Federer in 2009.

Then, Nadal had played a five-hour, 14-minute semi-final with Fernando Verdasco, the longest match on record at Melbourne Park, before beating Federer in five sets for his first title down under. “I had only one day and Federer had two, no?” he said. “I was recovered for the final, so I think you can say it’s unfair, yes, but not crazy unfair.”

While fitness may ultimately decide who wins, a lack of it is unlikely to concern either Nadal or four-times grand slam champion Djokovic, bidding for his third win at Melbourne Park. Two of the fittest players on the tour, neither Djokovic nor Nadal will sweat about the possibility of a five-set marathon.