‘The matches you live for’: Novak relishes Rafa challenge

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Fifty-two matches. Seven in Grand Slam finals. One here at Melbourne Park, a record-breaking affair – and now, a second on Sunday. For Novak Djokovic, 27 victories; for Rafael Nadal, 25. No two men have met more often in the Open era, and no two men have pushed one another further.

The Serb and Spaniard will meet in Sunday’s Australian Open 2019 final, a rematch of the 2012 epic that left both men struggling to stay upright to collect their trophies after five hours and 53 minutes of jaw-dropping tennis.

Djokovic prevailed that day, as he has in all six of his Australian Open finals to date. And now, with a record seventh men’s singles title on the line, he faces Nadal, the benchmark’s benchmark, bidding to become the first man in the Open era to win all four majors at least twice.

“Nadal has historically throughout my life and career been the greatest rival that I ever played against, on all the surfaces,” Djokovic noted after his 6-0 6-2 6-2 rout of Lucas Pouille in the semifinals. 

MORE: Djokovic jumps into seventh AO decider
 
“Some matches that we had against each other were a great turning point in my career. I feel they have made me rethink my game.

“I had some disappointing moments where I lost to him. I think I’ve lost to him nine times so far in the Grand Slams, and I lost some tough matches in finals and semis at the French Open and US Open. I won also some great matches.

“Those kind of encounters have also made me the player I am today, without a doubt. These are the kind of matches that you live for: finals of Slams, playing the greatest rivals at their best. What more can you ask for? This is where you want to be.”

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Standing between Djokovic and AO history is Nadal, his 'greatest rival'

For both men, the very fact they are back in a title match at Melbourne Park in 2019 is, in itself, astounding. Djokovic departed Australia for surgery on his bothersome elbow last February, while Nadal underwent an operation on his ankle in November. In both cases, what followed has been nothing short of remarkable.

Nadal had not played a match since the US Open when he arrived in Melbourne, only to plough through the draw without dropping a set. And there he will face the player who, in half a season, claimed the Wimbledon and US Open titles and with them, the No.1 ranking.

Now, for both men, history awaits. 

“There's so much at stake, it's hard to pick one thing,” said Djokovic when asked what means most to him in this final. “Obviously making history of the sport that I love is an honour and is a privilege. It's a huge motivation. At the same time Nadal is across the net. We're playing finals of Grand Slam for the record seventh title here. If you don't get motivated by all these things, then something is wrong.”

Like Nadal against Tsitsipas on Thursday night, Djokovic was virtually flawless in his semifinal victory over Pouille. He hit just five unforced errors and dropped just four games, admitting the performance ranks as one of his best at the Australian Open – and beyond.

Djokovic v Pouille SF

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“In the past I've played some tournaments, specifically here in Australia,” Djokovic said “I've had some terrific matches, couple matches in a row where I would win comfortably in straight sets. Considering the occasion and circumstances and playing semifinals here, this is definitely one of the best matches I've played on Rod Laver Arena in my career.

“You just happen to be in that zone that we all strive for. Every professional athlete wants to be in the zone, where everything flows so effortlessly, and you are executing automatically everything you are intending to execute. You don't need to think too much. I guess you're driven by some force that takes over you and you feel divine, you feel like in a different dimension. It's quite an awesome feeling that we all try to reach and stay in.

“It's probably the biggest challenge, I think, to repeat that, to stay there for as long as you possibly can. It's an individual sport, so everything really depends on you, how you emotionally cope with all these things. 

“It really takes a long time to get to that stage or phase where you have so much confidence and everything flows, but it takes such little time to lose it. That's why we all are very committed and very aware that professionalism really gets you to that state of mind and play where everything flows.”

Two titans of the game remain, with their 52-match history littered with titanic battles – none more so than that 2012 final, but even that has competition for their greatest showdown, with the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal – played over two days and five hours – running it close.

“Those are the matches that just come to my mind right now where feels like it's unfair if you have one winner,” Djokovic said. “Those kind of matches, where you go the distance and you push each other to the very limit.

“Of course, you want to come out as a winner out of those matches, but the same time understanding that you really took everything you have out on the court and you left your heart, you can be content with that.