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It's Happening Again

Photo: Mark Kolbe / Scott Barbour / Mark Dadswell (Getty)

Rafael Nadal had booked his room in the final, with two whole days to ready himself for it. He drained the blood out of Stefanos Tsitsipas, just as he did to the last two kids trying to prematurely usher in the future. All Novak Djokovic had to do was wrap up one last errand today, and he didn’t dawdle, dropping only four games today against Lucas Pouille in 1:23 of court time. Like most men’s major semifinals in recent history, these matches felt like formalities. But here, the payoff couldn’t be more gratifying.

Djokovic and Nadal will meet in the Australian Open final this weekend, their first major final bout in five seasons, and a seven-year echo of one of the best matches ever played: their six-hour turf war here in 2012.

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Now the Serb is 31 and the Spaniard is 32, but the scoreboards have barely budged. These last two weeks, the top two seeds rampaged through the bracket much like they used to. For Djokovic, this will be a third consecutive Slam final. He’s fully washed off that 2017-18 funk—a 35-3 tear with four titles tends to cleanse the mind—and has locked down the No. 1 spot all over again. Meanwhile, Nadal enters the final after winning 66 straight service games, reaping the rewards of a slightly modified service motion. His delivery has never been his strongest weapon, but when it’s clicking, his game is without discernible flaw. This is will be Rafa’s seventh time entering a major final without having dropped a set, and his first time off clay. He’s rarely looked this cozy on a hard court.

Pitting these two players against one another produces some of the most baffling baseline play the men’s game has ever had, and their Wimbledon semifinal last year proved that their latent mutant genes still flare up so long as the other guy is across the net. Given their styles of play, the Melbourne courts offer an even better battlefield than grass, granting each man the time on the ball, and the air under it, to produce his best stuff. In 2012 they both had to put in 5:53 of labor before Djokovic could lift the trophy, 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7, 7–5. Even now you could watch is straight through like a double-feature.

Even if these two are the same freaks as ever, there is one structural difference from now and then: The Australian Open has put a bookend on fifth sets this year, offering a super-tiebreak to 10 points at 6-6 instead of letting the players grind out for a two-game lead. That’s meant to be a humane solution, but these two aren’t human. Just write in a Nole-Rafa Exception clause; no one crazed enough to be watching this match in the middle of the night could possibly mind.

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