Nadal in the race, Djokovic in shock as the Australian Open approaches

MELBOURNERafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic owns two of the largest collections of Grand Slam trophies in the history of men’s tennis. They are two of the most prominent active figures in their sport; no one else is even close. Both over 30; no one knows how long they will be at the top of the game.

For all that unites long-time rivals, Nadal and Djokovic could hardly enter this Australian Openwhich starts on Monday (Sunday EDT) under more contrasting circumstances.

Nadal is, of course, the reigning champion at Melbourne Park – thanks to a two-set comeback in last year’s final that he called “one of the most emotional victories of his tennis career” – but he’s also mired in about as much trouble as he has ever experienced: 0-2 so far in 2023 and he has only won one of his last seven matches dating back to the end of last season.

Djokovic, of course, returns to Australia after kicked out a year ago because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, but he also started this trip with a tuning title in Adelaide and won 30 of his last 31 tournament events dating back to the end of last season.

“He still has it,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who finished runner-up to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open and the No. 3 seed in Melbourne. “He can still play.”

Asked at Saturday’s pre-tournament press conference if he felt vulnerable, Nadal made no attempt to hide anything.

“Yeah. Without a doubt,” replied a 36-year-old man from Spain, whose 2022 was full of health problems, including chronic pain in his left leg, damage to the costal cartilage and a torn abdominal muscle. “I lost more than usual … I have to live with it and just fight for the wins.”

Ahead of his upcoming clash at the Rod Laver Arena with Jack Draper, fellow left-hander, 21-year-old 40th ranked English player, Nadal said: “I think I’m ready to play well. We’ll see on Monday if I’m ready to win.”

Regarding his assessment of Djokovic’s form, Nadal said: “He finished last year well and started this year well.”

Of course he did. None of this matters as much to Djokovic as another Grand Slam title. Win the 10th Australian Open in two weeks and the 35-year-old Serbian player will increase his winnings to 22 major tournaments and pull even with Nadal (both surpassed 20th place by the now retired Roger Federer).

“I mean, that’s why I keep playing professional tennis, (competitive) tennis, because I want to be the best. I want to win the biggest tournaments in the world. There’s no secret about it,” Djokovic said three days before he opens Tuesday night at the Rod Laver Arena against the 75th-seeded Roberto Carbales Baena, who has exactly one win in Melbourne to his credit.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than that. You have four Grand Slams that have historically been the biggest events in our sport,” Djokovic said. “That’s also one of the main reasons why I was really looking forward to returning to Australia: my track record is here.”

He was pleased with the cheers he received from spectators in Adelaide and Melbourne, where he played an exhibition match at the Rod Laver Arena on Friday against Nick Kyrgios, the man Djokovic defeated in the Wimbledon final last July.

“I didn’t know how things would go after the events of last year,” Djokovic said. “I’m very grateful for the energy and the welcome, the love and support I received last night.”

Regarding how the other players greeted him, Djokovic said: “Well, I didn’t really ask, ‘What do you guys think of me coming back here?’ The people I spoke to were very supportive. No one has yet given negative feedback about my return.”

Djokovic has frequently mentioned since arriving in Australia that he holds no grudges about being kicked out of the country in 2022 for failing to comply with coronavirus rules that have since been relaxed, and said on Saturday: “Maybe if I “If I couldn’t move on, I wouldn’t be here.”

But he is. And while Djokovic struggled with a hamstring injury he sustained in Adelaide, physically Djokovic looked just fine against Kyrgios.

“I like my chances,” Djokovic said. “I always like my chances.”


Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich


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