World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal will play the Australian Open men's final in the match everyone has been hoping to see. Credit both men for making the appointment; getting there is never as easy as it may look.
The question de jour is: What can Nadal possibly do to turn around Djokovic's mastery, which includes a 6-0 record against Nadal in 2011?
First of all, he can place a thank-you call to Andy Murray, the No. 4 pro who forced Djokovic to play for almost five hours in their semifinal (a repeat of last year's final) before the Scot capitulated. As fit and determined as Djokovic may be, a five-hour match is never good preparation for the next round. Especially if that match has the resonance and epic feel of a final.
Beyond that, here are the three main things Rafa must do to halt the Djokovic juggernaut:
1. Play from atop or inside the baseline: Murray put up a great fight in the epic five-set semi, and he made some spectacular shots. But he was never more effective than when he was inside the baseline, hitting those suddenly rock-solid forehand crosscourt shots to set up his backhand.
Of course, Nadal is a lefty, and his natural advantage (that his forehand goes to Djokovic's backhand) is mitigated by the quality of Djokovic's backhand. Last year, Nadal was burned by that backhand on more occasions than he'd like to remember. But he still needs to get inside that court and put Djokovic on the run. The other day, Nadal revealed that he's been working hard on hitting his backhand from farther inside the court. Doing so would help his cause.
2. Return aggressively: If I had to pick a single decisive element in this match, I'd go with service return. The better returner will likely get more looks at break points, as well as standing a better chance of establishing court position and threatening to break.
Both men have good serves. Although not blessed with a classic lefty serve (think Goran Ivanisevic), Nadal has excellent placement and mixes up his serves very well. The big challenge for him will be making the most of Djokovic's second serves, which played a big role in his ultimate success against Murray in that five-set war of a semi.
3. Focus on big opportunities: Lost in all the well-deserved praise for the quality of the Djokovic-Murray match was the fact that it featured some very sloppy play from both men. To wit: The match featured a remarkable 50 break points -- 24 for Murray.
Sure, Djokovic served and defended those points well (Murray converted only seven) -- but big matches are usually won by the players who capitalize on chances. In his semifinal win over Roger Federer, Nadal had a look at 16 break points, and he converted six. He'll need to do better than that if he wants to turn the tables on Djokovic.
On the "intangibles" front, Nadal probably holds an edge. Murray really beat up on Djokovic, while Nadal had a comparatively easy time of it with Federer. And Djokovic seems to have an allergy problem. It was so severe in the semi that he played poorly because of it in the second set, and the early part of the third.
Nadal, though, is coming in with a powerful allergy of his own -- to Djokovic, and that muscular, athletic game that stunned him six times last year. The conventional wisdom says that Djokovic is "in Nadal's head." But like many leases, this one might expire in as little as a year, and this is, after all, 2012.