While players are loath to admit it, Rafael Nadal must be very satisfied indeed with the manner in which his draw has fallen into place at Australian Open 2014.
Gone is chief rival and title threat Novak Djokovic, the three-time defending champion who fell in the quarterfinals. Avoided have been all members of the tour’s army of flat-hitting big men – such as Juan Martin del Potro – against whom he has occasionally been susceptible to an upset loss in the past.
And as the tournament has progressed, he’s found himself up against a slew of right-handed players with one-handed backhands – Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, Roger Federer in the semis, and soon Stanislas Wawrinka in the final – who own a playing style that dovetails perfectly with his own.
Couple that with the world No.1’s stellar form at Melbourne Park this year, and it seems the stars have aligned for another Rafael Nadal victory at the Australian Open.
It’s an outcome that would see the Spaniard enter into some pretty rarified territory.
Winning here would give Nadal his second Australian Open title, seeing him become the first man in the Open era – and third in history, along with Rod Laver and Roy Emerson – to win each of the four majors at least twice. It would also be his 14th Grand Slam title, making him the youngest player in history to win that many majors, and which would also vault him into equal-second place, alongside Pete Sampras, on the list of all-time Grand Slam title holders.
They’re heady stats indeed, and he got one step closer to achieving them after his semifinal victory over Roger Federer, who currently leads that last – and perhaps most coveted – list.
A Nadal win has actually become a pretty routine scenario whenever these two titans of the game come face-to-face.
Whether it be the product of false modesty, a hyper-cautious mentality or simply the mark of an exceedingly humble champion, the Spaniard always says the right things about his matches with the Swiss.
“He's a very aggressive player. He's one of these players that he's able to win the point in one shot, in two shots. So not everybody's able to play that way. He's one of these players that is able to play that way. That's very difficult to stop.”
Except that Nadal has rarely had difficulty in stopping it.
His victory on Friday night was his 23rd in 33 matches against Federer, a record that now includes a 9-2 winning edge in majors, a 3-0 record at Melbourne Park, and, perhaps most damningly, 15 of their past 19 matches.
And the stats are even more one-sided whenever Nadal matches up against Wawrinka, which will come in Sunday night’s men’s final.
Yet, again, Nadal was quick to praise his opponent.
“He's serving unbelievable. He's hitting the ball very strong from the baseline. Very, very quick. Is very difficult to play against him today. I know will be a very, very tough match,” he said.
“If I am not able to play my best, I think I will not have chances because he's coming to this match with a lot of victories and playing great.”
Wawrinka is indeed enjoying career-best form coming into this match, having ousted Djokovic in the quarters and big-hitting Tomas Berdych in the last four to take his place in a career-first major final. It’s a result that will see him crack the top five and become the top-ranked Swiss for the first time, leapfrogging Federer.
Yet it’s a whole new ball-game when Wawrinka comes up against the rampaging Rafa.
In 12 career meetings, Nadal has never dropped a set. At Grand Slams, it’s even more one-sided – in their two previous meetings, Nadal dropped just six games in each match, a 6-2 6-2 6-2 drubbing here at Melbourne Park in 2007, and just last year at Roland Garros, a 6-2 6-3 6-1 thumping.
Perhaps the most foreboding preview came by way of the men’s final media notes: “This is Nadal’s most successful match-up. He has never defeated another player more times without loss than Wawrinka.”
And given the way Nadal is playing at Australian Open 2014, it’s hard to see Wawrinka bucking the trend come Sunday.
Despite an uncomfortable blister on his palm, Nadal has smacked his forehand with brutal authority. His backhand has been laser-sharp, and his movement exemplary – especially when forced to stretch and react to a powerful shot. It’s hard to remember him ever playing his passing shots better. And he’s been at his best when scores have been tight; in five tiebreakers at Melbourne Park this year, he’s won them all.
Plus, he’s looked at his most dominant when lashing that viciously-biting topspin forehand deep and kicking into the one-handed backhands of his last two opponents.
Expect more of the same against Wawrinka. And the re-writing of the record books to begin.