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Australian Open 2023: Rafael Nadal in a rut, Novak Djokovic on a roll
1/14/2023 10:35:59 PM
AUSTRALIA, Jan 14: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic own the two largest collections of Grand Slam trophies in the history of men's tennis. They are their sport's two most prominent active figures; no one else is even close. Both are in their mid-30s; no one knows how much longer they'll be at the top of the game For all that the long-time rivals have in common, Nadal and Djokovic could hardly be entering this Australian Open, which begins on Monday (Sunday EST), under more contrasting circumstances.
Nadal, of course, is the defending champion at Melbourne Park - thanks to a comeback from two sets down in last year's final, which he called "one of the most emotional victories of my tennis career" - but he also is mired in about as bad a stretch as he's ever experienced: 0-2 so far in 2023 and having won just one of his past seven matches dating to the end of last season.
Djokovic, of course, is making his return to Australia after being banished a year ago because he wasn't vaccinated against COVID-19, but he also began this trip with a tuneup title in Adelaide and has won 30 of his past 31 tournament contests dating to the end of last season.
"He's still got it," said Stefanos Tsitsipas, the runner-up to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open and seeded No. 3 in Melbourne. "He can still play."
Asked at a pre-tournament news conference on Saturday whether he feels vulnerable, Nadal did not try to hide a thing.
"Yeah. Without a doubt," replied the 36-year-old from Spain, whose 2022 was littered with health concerns that included chronic pain in his left foot, damaged rib cartilage and a torn abdominal muscle. "I have been losing more than usual. ... I need to live with it and just fight for the victories."
Looking ahead to his upcoming encounter in Rod Laver Arena against Jack Draper, a fellow left-hander who is a 21-year-old from England ranked 40th, Nadal said: "I think I'm prepared to play well. We'll see Monday if I'm prepared to win."
As for his assessment of Djokovic's form, Nadal offered this: "He ended last year well, and he started this year well."
Sure did. None of which matters to Djokovic as much as another Grand Slam title would. Win what would be a 10th Australian Open championship in two weeks' time, and the 35-year-old from Serbia would increase his haul to 22 majors and pull even with Nadal (both surpassed the 20 for the now-retired Roger Federer).
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