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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic

Calling Novak Djokovic arguably the greatest hard-court player of all time, John McEnroe says the Serbian is a strong favorite to win his eighth AO championship.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

A dynamic Novak Djokovic played demolition man in the 2019 Australian Open final.

In a major master class, a Djokovic deconstructed archrival Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, roaring to a record seventh Australian Open championship.

Evert: Serena Short of Top Form, Still AO Favorite

While world No. 1 Nadal arrives in Melbourne competing to capture his 20th career Grand Slam title and equal Roger Federer's all-time men's major mark, ESPN analyst John McEnroe sees Djokovic retaining his title dominating Melbourne as the king of clay has commanded Paris.

In a conference call with the media to promote ESPN's first ball to last ball coverage of the Australian Open starting on Sunday, January 19th on ESPN2, McEnroe declared Djokovic a heavy favorite to defend down under.

"Obviously Roger is 38 he'll be 39 this year. Rafa and Novak—if they're healthy especially in best of five—they're extremely difficult to beat," McEnroe told Tennis Now. "To me, I would still look at Novak—he's won seven [Australian Open titles]—maybe it's just like he's gonna win this the same way Rafa wins the French. "

The second-ranked Serbian scored his ninth straight hard-court win over the US Open champion leading Serbia to the inaugural ATP Cup championship last weekend. Djokovic is 9-0 in matches and 19-0 in sets vs. Nadal on hard court since the 2013 US Open. 

Djokovic's skill commanding the center of the court, taking the ball on the rise and ripping flat strikes off both wings into the corners has presented unsolvable problems for Nadal on hard court.

Hall of Famer McEnroe says if Djokovic brings his best, the world No. 1 will come up second best in Melbourne—along with the rest of the field.

"You're looking at, to me, the three best players who ever played in Novak and Rafa and Roger so the surface suits him just as if Rafa plays Novak on clay it certainly favors Rafa," McEnroe said. "Maybe not as dominating as the way it's been recently. But you saw when they bring their A games on hard courts, especially last year I, don't see Rafa beating Novak if Novak is playing his best.

"I don't see anyone beating Novak if he plays at that level. So if he's in the right space mentally and physically he's clearly the big favorite to win this."

The Big 3 of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have combined to capture 12 consecutive Grand Slam crowns. The iconic trio have ruled 13 of the last 14 Australian Open championships with only 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka breaking their Melbourne mastery.

Eighteen-time Grand Slam champion Chrissie Evert asserts Djokovic is the man to beat, but believes we will see a maiden major men's champion this season. Though she's not sure it will happen in Melbourne.

"I think Novak is looking better than anyone right now," Evert told Tennis Now. "But I think something is brewing. There's an undercurrent of Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Kyrgios, Stan Wawrinka. There's just a lot of talent there, including Thiem, Zverev.

"I think it's gonna happen. I think this year they will break through and one of them will win a Grand Slam. I don't know if it's gonna be this tournament. Novak is looking pretty comfortable at the top."

Pointing to Djokovic's proactive court-positioning as a primary reason why he holds a 29-26 career lead over Nadal in the most prolific rivalry in ATP history, Evert said the quicker Melbourne court suits the Serbian's strengths presenting the Spaniard with a Sisyphus-like challenge in Oz.

"I think Rafa has tried everything. He's throwing the kitchen sink at Djokovic and it's still not working," Evert said. "You have to admire Rafa. A few years back he shortened his swing, it was obvious he was coming into net more and I just think his instinct is to stay back on the baseline wind up and just crush the ball with spin and you can't do that on a fast court like a hard court.

"Novak is just a machine. He's a machine out there. It's a matter of one player is a genius on one surface, the other player is a genius on another surface."

Ultimately, Djokovic has all the hard-court answers against Nadal's patterns, says McEnroe.

"I do think Rafa is trying to do everything he can," McEnroe said. "It's extrmely difficult to be able to succeed against a guy who has the answers to everything you're trying to do."


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