10sBalls.com • TennisBalls.com

Ricky’s preview and pick for the Australian Open men’s singles final: Medvedev vs. Nadal

Daniil Medvedev aims to deny Rafael Nadal his quest of winning a men’s record 21st Grand Slam crown in the Australian Open final. EPA-EFE/DAVE HUNT AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

By Ricky Dimon

Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal are battling for not only the Australian Open title but also for some serious history. With a victory, Medvedev would become the first player to back up his first slam title by winning the very next major. He would also become world No. 1 for the first time next month. Nadal, of course, would get to No. 21 with a win.

Here is my preview and pick for Sunday’s final.

Good things tend to happen when Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal take the court on opposite sides of the net.

And that is exactly what can be expected when they do so once again on Sunday night amidst the highest-possible stakes in the final of the Australian Open.

Quite memorably, they have been on a similar stage once before. The 2019 U.S. Open final between Nadal and Medvedev is without question one of the best matches of the last decade, with the Spaniard triumphing 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 after four hours and 51 minutes. Two encounters since have also been high-quality thrillers. Nadal prevailed 6-7(3), 6-3, 7-6(4) at the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals despite trailing 5-1 in the third set, while Medvedev got the best of this matchup for the first time in his career by winning 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 in the semis of the 2020 Nitto ATP Finals. Overall, Nadal leads the head-to-head series 3-1–including 2-0 on outdoor hard courts.

That certainly doesn’t make Medvedev the underdog in this particular match. In fact, he has been the overall tournament favorite ever since Novak Djokovic was deported out of Australia. Although the world No. 2 unsurprisingly made his way through to the final, it wasn’t easy. He battled through four tight sets against Maxime Cressy in the fourth round, saved a match point in an incredible 6-7(4), 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-5, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Felix Auger-Aliassime, and then pulled away from Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 following three wildly entertaining sets on Friday night.

Nadal’s most significant scare also came in the quarters, when he was less than 100 percent physically but managed to hold off Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 after four hours and eight minutes. Another mid-match hiccup against Matteo Berrettini was more brief, as Nadal advanced to the final via a 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 decision on Friday afternoon.

“For me it’s something completely unexpected,” the 35-year-old said of being back in an Australian Open final for the sixth time, which has come on the heels of a foot injury and also a case of Covid-19. “So I am super happy. Everybody knows me; [I’m] always gonna try my best. Of course my goal now is to win.”

Winning won’t be easy against an opponent who is currently the toughest test other than Djokovic for pretty much every player on tour–at least on hard courts. Medvedev is the reigning U.S. Open champion, the 2021 Aussie Open runner-up (to Djokovic), and he will become No. 1 in the world in February when Djokovic’s 2021 title points come off the board if he triumphs on Sunday.

“It’s really tough to get into [a slam] final, and I always have [the Big 3] there waiting for me,” Medvedev noted. “But it’s fun, you know. When I was like eight, 10 years old I was playing against the wall and I was imagining that it’s Rafa on the other side, or Roger.

“Now I have the chance to play (a) second time (against Nadal in a major final). First one was a close one; epic one. I’m gonna try to prepare well and need to show my best, because that’s what I took from the three finals that I had before: that you have to do better than 100 percent in order to win. That’s what I managed to do in (the 2021) U.S. Open; that’s what I’m gonna try to do on Sunday.”

The Russian should be able to do it. At this point in their careers, with Medvedev at 25 years old and Nadal at 35, it’s a favorable matchup for the younger guy. His world-class two-handed backhand can withstand the left-hander’s heavy topspin, his serve can overpower Nadal’s return, and he can better handle the rigors of a five-setter.

Nadal would probably have to win this one in relatively swift fashion if he wants to make history with a double-career Grand Slam and major title No. 21. Given Medvedev’s form at the moment, that isn’t likely to happen.

Pick: Medvedev in 5

Ricky contributes to10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.