Rafael Nadal is clearly in good enough form to win the French Open. As in, he still has a pulse.
So unless Roger Federer can somehow overcome his aching body, a poor record against Novak Djokovic, then beat either Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev in the Australian Open final, Nadal will draw level with the Swiss icon’s record of 20 Grand Slams in June at Roland Garros.
Nadal was very close to Thiem in their brutal four-hour quarter-final dogfight. He lost. It happens; he won his lone Melbourne Park title way back in 2009, against Federer.
“A very close match. A good level of tennis, I think,” Nadal said after the Thiem loss.
“Nothing to say – just well done to him.
“I honestly didn’t play a bad match. My attitude was great, I think, the whole match. Good, positive fighting spirit the whole time, giving me more chances. That’s what I tried: don’t give up.
“I give myself an opportunity until the last point, so happy for that.”
It was an ominous exit interview. If the ultra-competitive Spaniard hadn’t just suffered a gruelling loss, he’d have been laughing with contentment at how his 2020 looks.
“Nadal will be at peace with this. He won’t be happy with it, but he’ll move on,” four-time Slam winner Jim Courier said on Nine.
“He’ll be looking forward to trying to get his 20th major at Roland Garros and hope that Federer’s not sitting on 21 by then.”
Nadal feels that he has started the season in strong form. He has lost in the Australian Open quarter-finals six times, so it is not a form dip. Crucially, he is healthy.
If Nadal’s body is fine, there is very little reason to believe that anyone else can win the French Open. The Spaniard has 12 Roland Garros titles from 15 attempts, with a ludicrous record of 93-2 for a winning percentage of 98 (he withdrew after two matches in 2016 due to a wrist injury).
Should Nadal not win in Paris, it won’t necessarily be Djokovic or Federer. Thiem has lost the past two finals to Nadal and he’s knocking heavily on the door.
Courier analyses men’s semi-finals
Novak Djokovic is a roaring favourite to win the Australian Open. He carries a 26-23 career advantage over Federer heading into their Thursday night semi-final, plus a 10-6 edge in Slams. Federer hasn’t beaten Djokovic at a major since the Wimbledon semis in 2012, while the Serbian has won their past five Slam matches; including last year’s epic final at the All England Club.
If Djokovic wins an eighth Australian Open, that leaves him with 17 Slams in the all-time race, against 19 for Nadal and 20 for Federer.
Djokovic and Federer will be favoured for Wimbledon. Yet Nadal is virtually unbeatable at Roland Garros and is also the defending US Open champion, having won four titles at Flushing Meadows.
Djokovic has three US Open titles but is 1-2 in Flushing Meadows deciders against Nadal. Federer hasn’t won the US Open since 2008.
Following the historical form guide, Nadal should equal Federer’s Grand Slam haul in Paris and is a big chance to overhaul his great rival in New York at this year’s final major.
It will be interesting to see if Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and fellow Next Gen stars can finally shift the balance of power in men’s tennis by the end of this season; if not at the Australian Open, with either Thiem or Zverev guaranteed to reach Sunday’s final.
With a 24-16 career edge over Federer, plus a 10-4 record in Slams and 6-3 ledger in Slam finals, Nadal has the superior head-to-head record over Federer; as does Djokovic, who has the Swiss legend covered 4-1 in Slam finals.
By year’s end, Nadal could be the Greatest Of All Time, from a Slam perspective. Djokovic may well have added to his tally and at 32, is the youngest man compared to Nadal (33) and Federer (38).
Respected coach Brad Gilbert was asked by Nine for his opinion on who will ultimately win the Slam race.
“Hardcore Fed fans will say that no matter what anybody does, he can’t be passed,” Gilbert said.
“I feel that Djokovic at the moment is a really young 32. Let’s say he posts another five to seven [Slams], and Rafa wins two to three.
“Fed has already put it out there that he’s comfortable saying that both of them are going to pass him. He probably doesn’t really feel that or want that, but he’s prepared for it.
“I think it’s one of those subjective things (who is actually the best), but if you’re asking me at the end who will probably have the most [Slams] of the three, I’m slightly leaning towards Djokovic.”
*Stream every match and every court of the Australian Open on 9Now. 20 January – 2 February 2020.