In his first five matches at this year’s Australian Open, Novak Djokovic had impressed without being at his very best. In one hour, 23 minutes of destructive tennis on Friday night, he hit top form at exactly the right time.
Imperious Djokovic sets up Nadal final
World's top two will meet for the 53rd time in a repeat of their classic 2012 Australian Open final
The six-times champion’s crushing 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 win over Lucas Pouille ended the best-ever run of the Frenchman and sets up a mouth-watering showdown with Rafael Nadal in the final, a repeat of their epic battle of 2012, when Djokovic prevailed in almost six hours of tennis brutality.
The kind of matches you live for
“Nadal has historically throughout my life and career been the greatest rival that I ever played against on all the surfaces,” Djokovic said.
.@DjokerNole on @RafaelNadal: "Nadal has historically throughout my life and career been the greatest rival that I ever played against on all the surfaces."— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 25, 2019
🍿 at the ready.#AusOpen pic.twitter.com/EUQ0HvSmtA
“Some matches that we had against each other were a great turning point in my career. I feel they have made me rethink my game. I had some disappointing moments where I lost to him. I think I lost to him nine times so far in the grand slams and I lost some tough matches in finals and semis in French Open and US Open. I won also some great matches.
“Those kind of encounters have also made me the player I am today, without a doubt. These are the kind of matches that you live for, finals of slams, playing the greatest rivals at their best. What more can you ask for? This is where you want to be.”
As a six-time champion – a record he shares with Roger Federer and Roy Emerson – Djokovic has enjoyed many great moments on Rod Laver Arena but against Pouille, he was in the zone from the start, smashing 24 winners, including six aces, and making just five unforced errors.
"One of the best matches I’ve ever had on this court"
It was a performance of conviction, putting him one more win away from a third straight grand slam title, having won Wimbledon and the US Open last summer. And it came just at the right time, too, after Nadal had trounced Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece the previous night.
“It was definitely one of the best matches I’ve ever had on this court, definitely,” Djokovic said. “Everything worked the way I imagined before the match. Tough one for Lucas but he had a great tournament and I wish him all the best for the future.”
Pouille had beaten Borna Coric of Croatia and the big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic to reach his first grand slam semi-final. After taking on Amelie Mauresmo as his coach at the end of last year, the 24-year-old harboured hopes he might threaten Djokovic but the Serb was in no mood to play games.
Too good today
Instead, the man who this time last year was playing in the pain of an elbow injury and feared he may never get back to his best, crushed his hopes right from the start. An ace on the first point set the tone for Djokovic and then a double-fault from Pouille handed him the early break.
At no stage did it ever look like Pouille would get back into the match. Djokovic dropped just eight points on serve in the three sets, his forehand deadly and his backhand, as ever, rock solid. Even when Pouille did come up with something special, Djokovic just chased it down and when he had the chance to attack himself, he took it.
Just as Tsitsipas had looked shocked after his beating by Nadal, so Pouille looked helpless against Djokovic as his hopes of a first grand slam final disappeared in a hurry. “I think the first mistake came after maybe one set, I don't know,” Pouille said. “If I wanted to get closer or arrive at the end of one set, 4-all, I had to serve 90 percent or 100 percent first serve. Even this I was not sure to even get close to it. I think he just played amazing. He was too good today.
Remember the longest grand slam final in history
And so the two men who have won 31 grand slam titles, Djokovic with 14 and Nadal with 17, will meet again in the final here, just as they did in 2012, when they played the longest grand slam final in history, at five hours, 53 minutes, so exhausted at the end that they could barely stand up at the trophy presentation.
Djokovic beat Nadal 10-8 in the final set in the semi-finals at Wimbledon last summer on his way to the title and has won six of their past seven finals. Overall, he leads Nadal 27-25, and though the Spaniard leads their grand slam battles 9-5 and four of their seven slam finals – including the past three - Djokovic has won 14 of their 24 matches in finals. Victory would make Nadal only the third man, after Rod Laver and Emerson, to win each of the four grand slam titles at least twice.
Having played his semi-final on Thursday, Nadal will have an extra 24 hours to prepare. The change in day on, day off rhythm can throw players off-kilter but 10 years after his only win here, he is focused only on the task at hand, winning another grand slam title.
In his way, yet again, is Djokovic, who looks right back to his very best. As the Serb said, when asked about the match-up: “I’d buy a ticket for that”.