MELBOURNE, Australia — All eyes will be fixed on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday when World No. 1 Novak Djokovic battles the red-hot Daniil Medvedev for the Australian Open men’s singles title (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
The pair have had contrasting runs to the final at Melbourne Park. Djokovic, an eight-time Australian Open champion, entered the fortnight as the man to beat. But after appearing to tear an oblique muscle in the third round against American Taylor Fritz, there were serious doubts he would be able to continue his pursuit of an 18th major title.
Since then, Djokovic has enjoyed comfortable wins over Milos Raonic, Alexander Zverev and Aslan Karatsev, and fears about the mysterious injury have subsided.
Meanwhile, Medvedev has carried on his spectacular hardcourt form, dominating everyone who has stood at the opposite baseline. The Russian is riding a 20-match winning streak on the surface, with 11 of those victories coming against top-10 ranked players. Medvedev is searching for his first major title, and if he captures it this weekend in Melbourne, he will rise to world No. 2.
What are the keys to the final? ESPN analysts Patrick McEnroe, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill preview the match.
The experience factor
McEnroe: I like how Djokovic tried to turn it around and put the pressure on Medvedev by saying [Medvedev is] the player to beat. Medvedev might have only played one Slam final, but it was a great match and he showed tremendous determination, guts and endurance to take it to five sets. His tactics were also mostly spot on. If Medvedev loses this match, I don’t think it will be because he lacked major final experience or got any sort of stage fright, it will be because Djokovic took the game away from him.
Gilbert: Djokovic is 8-0 in Melbourne and Rafa is 13-0 in Paris. That’s 21-0 combined on those two courts. So yeah, experience definitely matters! One thing which I think is really important for Medvedev is that he had never won a five-set match, he was 0-6, but he won one early here against Filip Krajinovic. I think that was a big psychological thing for him to have won that match in five, and it’s something he could draw on in the final if it goes deep.
Cahill: Experience counts for a lot, and I think Medvedev spoke really well about it after his final against Rafael Nadal at the US Open a couple of years ago. It wasn’t that he played the wrong shots, it was just he lacked the experience of being there in that moment. He was down two sets to love and played two amazing sets to get back, before Nadal lifted again and won. But now that he’s been in that position before, he’ll be able to look back on that and gather a bit more experience, and not be scared of the finish line, if he gets that opportunity. That will help him. On the other hand, Novak has been there ample times before. For him, it’s second nature. For someone such as Medvedev, it’s not, and he will have to push himself through that.
How does Djokovic stop the most in-form man in tennis?
McEnroe: Djokovic has looked amazing in the past two matches and will continue to play his game, the same one that has won him eight titles in Australia. He’s not going to be too worried about what Medvedev did to Tsitsipas, who was far too inconsistent. Djokovic will not be as inconsistent, especially on this surface. Tactically, Djokovic is brilliant. He knows how to control the tempo of a match, when to attack and when to play it safe. The faster court is also helping him get a lot more out of his serve. He knows what he needs to do to get the job done.
Gilbert: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if tactics change for Djokovic, because he has lost three of four against him now. The one thing that’s difficult to do against Medvedev, who runs like the wind, is he’s hard to hit through. I wouldn’t be surprised if Djokovic uses a few more slices and plays a few balls down the middle and make Medvedev initiate the offense. Also, Novak has been serving incredibly well. He’s had more aces in this tournament than he’s ever had in any Slam. He can definitely win some free points on his serve and attack on the serve plus-one, but I really expect him to be varying his paces.
Cahill: Novak goes into any tournament knowing his tennis is better than anyone else’s, especially on a hard court down here in Australia. There’s nothing he needs to do differently, and he won’t be worried by anything he saw in Medvedev’s win over Tsitsipas on Friday night. Tsitsipas struggled enormously with the ball around the kneecaps, and that’s because of the way Medvedev hits his backhand — like a laser dart that actually has a bit of under spin as it goes over the net. For a single hander to dig that out, it was proving a nightmare for Tsitsipas, but that doesn’t bother Novak, who has a double-handed backhand, and he will handle that shot much more comfortably. Novak has the best return in the game, so Medvedev’s service games aren’t going to be as easy in the final. Novak will look to cut down the unforced errors and test out Medvedev’s legs to see if he can handle the physicality.
How does Medvedev dethrone the king?
McEnroe: Medvedev combines offense and defense really well, and finding that balance in the final will be critical. His weakness is probably in the forecourt, as his volley game leaves a little bit to be desired. If he’s to have success against Djokovic, he needs to finish points at the net, because a baseline contest could be problematic for him. Medvedev’s first serve is also a huge weapon, and we know Djokovic is the best returner in the game. That will be an interesting dynamic to watch throughout the match, to see who is prepared to take more risks.
Gilbert: What Medvedev can do is just counterpunch really well against Novak. He can hang back, use his backhand and get into these long rallies. That’s a recipe he likes and something he will be looking to do in the final. He also needs to look to win free points off his serve, which he managed against him in London at the ATP Finals. If he can manage both, he’s definitely a chance.
Cahill: That’s the big question. The court is playing faster than normal, and Medvedev has been able to win a heap of free points on his first serve. That’s going to have to continue doing so, and he’ll have to also be really aggressive on his second serve. Medvedev needs to start well because Novak is such a great front-runner, and we saw when they played at the Australian Open in 2019 that Medvedev struggled more and more as the match wore on. Sure, he’s a better player now, but is he good enough to beat Novak?
Who wins and why?
McEnroe: Djokovic is the favorite, and rightly so, but I think it’s Medvedev’s time, and he’s playing the kind of game that can really disrupt Djokovic. Medvedev is the closest player we have to Djokovic in the way he can defensively manipulate his opponent and change the pace. It might get into Djokovic’s head. I’m not sure if it will signal the changing of the guard, but I’ll take Medvedev in four really tight sets.
Gilbert: Both guys will be well-rested after routine semifinal wins, and I’m hoping that we get a five-set classic. But I’ve got to go with Djokovic in four sets, just based upon the fact he’s 8-0 in Australian Open finals and knows how to handle the occasion.
Cahill: This is going to be like the “Queen’s Gambit” match; a chess game between two really smart tennis players. I’m anticipating it being incredibly physical, and that’s going to favor Novak. Even if it’s a set all after an hour and 45 minutes to two hours, the advantage will go to Novak after that. I’m taking Novak in four sets.
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