<
>

Next Gen? Pfft. Usual suspects Djokovic and Nadal set for Aussie Open showdown

play
Djokovic breezes into Australian Open final (1:03)

No. 1 Novak Djokovic defeats Lucas Pouille in straight sets, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2, to advance to face Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final. (1:03)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- All that talk about the Next Generation players -- you know, the under-25ers scoring all the headlines and upsets here in Melbourne, the guys poised to take the baton from the aging Big Four and usher a new era into the game: Let's shelve that for now.

Because after all that, the Australian Open final (Sunday, 3:30 a.m. ET on ESPN) will be played between two of the best players in the history of the game, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal, in the 24th finals matchup and 53rd head-to-head contest of their careers. If you're keeping track, no matter who wins, this will be the 51st time in the past 56 Slams that one of the Big Four -- Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray -- will take home the trophy.

"The new generation is coming hard," Nadal said earlier this week. "But they can wait a little bit."

Here in Melbourne, Nadal is playing arguably the best tennis of his life. On the other side of the net, Djokovic is playing flawlessly himself, and he's only getting better each round.

Against No. 28 Lucas Pouille in a semifinal on Friday, Djokovic, 31, made only five unforced errors in a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 drubbing that took only 1 hour and 23 minutes to complete.

"Considering the occasion, this is one of the best matches I've played on Rod Laver in my career," Djokovic said of the match. "Every professional athlete wants to be in the zone, where everything flows effortlessly and you are executing automatically. You're driven by some force that takes over and you feel divine, in a different dimension."

Not to be outdone, Nadal, 32, has won an unbelievable 98 percent of his service games, and for only the seventh time in his career, he has reached a major final without dropping a set. The 17-time Grand Slam champ says his improved service motion has allowed him to shorten points this fortnight.

"There is not a better way to be aggressive than to hit every shot with the goal to create damage on the opponent," Nadal said after his semifinal win against rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday. "Today I can do that damage a little bit earlier than before because during this event I have been serving great. When you serve great, the first ball [after the return] is normally a little bit easier. During all my career, I never had that serve. But today I'm serving better."

Who is playing more dominant tennis? That's tough to say. Up to this point, the only top-10 player either man has faced in this tournament is No. 8 Kei Nishikori, who retired after two sets and 54 minutes in a quarterfinal loss to Djokovic. And although the finalists have both drawn their share of surging young upstarts, neither has had to work all that hard to get here.

Nadal has spent only 12 hours, 11 minutes on court to Djokovic's 11 hours, 59 minutes. Djokovic has dropped two sets all tournament, the first to No. 25 Denis Shapovalov in the third round, and a match later, against No. 15 Daniil Medvedev. Nadal, of course, has been nearly flawless.

"[Against Nadal], you need to be fit, ready to battle, ready to run for hours," Djokovic said. "It helps if you have not spent too much time prior to the finals on the court, and both of us have not spent too much time, so we are going to be physically fine. But mentally and emotionally, what will allow us to cross the finish line as a winner is who is able to stay more focused, more determined, is going to cope with the pressure moments better."

To this point, neither player has faced too many of those. Djokovic, a 14-time Slam winner, has beaten four players in the top 30 -- Shapovalov, Medvedev, Nishikori and Pouille -- while Nadal has faced only two -- No. 27 Alex de Minaur and No. 14 Tsitsipas. And three of Nadal's six opponents -- De Minaur, Frances Tiafoe and Tsitsipas -- were Next Gen'ers having the tournaments of their lives before meeting the Nadal impasse.

After each round, six-time Slam champ and TV analyst John McEnroe attempted to goad Nadal and Djoker into saying how much they enjoy beating up on the youngsters. After Tsitsipas beat Federer in the fourth round and knocked him out of the top three, McEnroe told the 20-year-old Greek player that his win might represent a "changing of the guard." Neither player was willing to take the bait -- nor was Federer, who said of McEnroe's comments, "I've heard that story for 10 years." They would say only that they are happy to see young players making a name for themselves, but happier to beat them in straight sets and delay their long-awaited arrival.

play
1:06

Nadal advances to Australian Open final for the 5th time

Rafael Nadal cruises by Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets (6-2, 6-4, 6-0) to advance to the final of the 2019 Australian Open.

But playtime's over.

This final has the potential to be another unforgettable matchup between two men who have faced each other more times in the Open era than any duo. The way they are playing, this battle could rival their epic showdown of 2012, which Djokovic won in 5 hours and 53 minutes, the longest final in Grand Slam history. They are playing such high-level tennis, they might be the only players in the world capable of beating each other right now.

"When he's playing like this, he's the best in the world for sure," Pouille said of Djokovic. "He doesn't make any mistake, he's moving so well, he's coming back from defense to offense. I think he's playing perfectly. But we'll see how it goes, because Rafa looks pretty amazing, too."

As Djokovic noted, Sunday's match might come down to will more than skill, to who wants it more and is tougher mentally down the stretch. Last year at this time, Djokovic was two weeks from having elbow surgery and listening to experts question whether he'd ever be the same player again. Although he's won all six of the finals he's contested on Rod Laver, he hadn't seen the semis since 2016. And let's not forget he's protecting a two-Slam win streak that started last June at Wimbledon, and a seventh Aussie Open title would break a three-way tie for the men's record with Federer and Roy Emerson.

And then there's Nadal, who has won this tournament only once, in 2009, but has three tough finals losses here to draw on for inspiration. He lost one apiece to Djokovic (2012), Stan Wawrinka (2014) and Federer (2017), but that 2012 heartbreaker has to still sting.

There's only one way to get over a loss like that.