MELBOURNE, Australia -- Two days before Sunday night's Australian Open final, and after a nearly flawless semifinal drubbing of Frenchman Lucas Pouille, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic spent a considerable amount of his postmatch news conference dissecting the much-improved game of Rafael Nadal.
"He has played impressively well throughout the entire tournament," Djokovic said of his greatest rival, the man he was about to face for the 53rd time in his career and the seventh time in a Grand Slam final. "He hasn't dropped a set. He's looked as good as ever on the hard court."
But what about his serve, Djokovic was asked.
"He has improved his serve. I see he has a slightly different service motion that has worked very well. With everything he possesses, adding to that also a lot of free points on the serve makes him much tougher to play against."
Then the now-15 time Grand Slam champion paused ever so briefly.
"At the same time," Djokovic continued, "it's quite different playing against me."
He proved his point Sunday night.
After all the prematch buildup and speculation and clearly deserved hype, Djokovic handed Nadal one of the speediest defeats of his career, quickly silencing a stunned Rafa-heavy crowd inside Rod Laver Arena. It took the Serb only 2 hours and 4 minutes to defeat Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. That's 23 fewer minutes than Naomi Osaka needed to win her second straight Grand Slam title against Petra Kvitova on Saturday night.
"To be standing here in front of you today and win three out of four Slams is amazing," Djokovic said on court after the match. "I am truly speechless."
So what are we to make of Sunday's clobbering on center court? What, after all that buildup, does it all mean? Quite honestly, not a whole lot. On Monday, in the men's game at least, the larger tennis landscape will remain largely the same.
Before the match, Djokovic, 31, was the No. 1 player in the world, the undisputed toughest man on tour to beat and playing arguably as well as he did when he won six Grand Slam titles between 2014 and 2016, including four in a row. After Sunday night, he still is.
Nadal was in the midst of yet another incredible comeback in an illustrious but injury-riddled career, feeling healthy and confident for the first time in months. After Sunday night, he still is.
"One thing is for sure: We both are going to strive for improvement in the future," Djokovic said. "I'm sure we're still going to have a lot of matches against each other on different surfaces. I really hope we will, because this rivalry has been the most significant rivalry, the one that impacted me on a personal and professional level the most in my life."
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After Sunday night, it still is.
All that is not to say Djokovic didn't take the man on the other side of the court Sunday night seriously. Far from it. He just went into the match with a game plan crafted specifically to neutralize Nadal's typically fearless playing style -- and that new serve -- and executed it to near perfection. Over three sets, Djokovic made only nine unforced errors to Nadal's 28, hit 34 winners and won on 82 percent of his second serves. In the first set, he gave up only one point -- one point! -- to Nadal on his serve. With the win, Djokovic also passed Pete Sampras on the list of all-time Slam singles champions with 15. Only Nadal (17) and Roger Federer (20) have more.
"I might have figured him out for the match," Djokovic said in his postmatch news conference. "But I didn't figure him out for life."
From the opening serve, Djokovic's play was surgical and efficient, his win swift and relentless. But really, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. On paper, Djokovic was the all-in favorite heading into Sunday, both historically against Nadal and in the lead-up to this match.
On hard courts, Djokovic is now 19-7 all time against Nadal, who last beat him on this surface in the final of the 2013 US Open. In their past seven hard-court matches before Sunday, Nadal had broken Djokovic only twice and was 2-for-9 on break points. Djokovic's 28 wins against Nadal are also the most by any player against a single opponent in the men's game in the Open era.
Oh, and there's this: Djokovic has now won three Slams in a row. So while Nadal has been on a roll the past two weeks, his play inspiring pundits to postulate this would be the year he avenges that heartbreaking, five-plus-hour loss to Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open final, Djokovic's been steamrolling the men's tour for the past six months.
"I don't want to sound arrogant, but I always believe in myself," Djokovic said, revealing the worst-kept secret in tennis. "That's probably the biggest secret of my success ... self-belief. I want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game ... so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger's record. But it's still far."
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Nadal, on the other hand, hadn't played a meaningful match in five months before the start of this tournament, hampered by a string of injuries that began at the US Open, when he retired from his semifinal match against Juan Martin del Potro with a knee injury. He had surgery on his right ankle in November, which shortened his offseason training, and withdrew from Brisbane earlier this month with a thigh strain.
"Even if tonight was not my night, it is so important to be where I am today, coming back from injury," Nadal said during the trophy ceremony. His concession speech was similar in tone to the one 24 hours earlier by Kvitova, who was playing in her first major final since returning to the tour after suffering injuries to her dominant hand in a 2016 knife attack. "I really believe that I played a great two weeks of tennis. That is going to be good energy, good inspiration for what's coming. I'm going to keep fighting hard, keep working hard to be a better player."
Because as one-half of the greatest rivalry in tennis, Nadal knows the next point to prove just might be his.