Nadal in rut, Djokovic on roll as Australian Open approaches

MELBOURNE (AP): Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic own the two largest collections of Grand Slam trophies in the history of men’s tennis. They are their sport’s two most prominent active figures; no one else is even close. Both are in their mid-30s; no one knows how much longer they’ll be at the top of the game.

For all that the long-time rivals have in common, Nadal and Djokovic could hardly be entering this Australian Open, which begins Monday (Sunday EST), under more contrasting circumstances.

Nadal, of course, is the defending champion at Melbourne Park — thanks to a comeback from two sets down in last year’s final, which he called “one of the most emotional victories of my tennis career” — but he also is mired in about as bad a stretch as he’s ever experienced: 0-2 so far in 2023 and having won just one of his past seven matches dating to the end of last season.

Djokovic, of course, is making his return to Australia after being banished a year ago because he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19, but he also began this trip with a tuneup title in Adelaide and has won 30 of his past 31 tournament contests dating to the end of last season.

“He’s still got it,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, the runner-up to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open and seeded No. 3 in Melbourne. “He can still play.” Asked at a pre-tournament news conference Saturday whether he feels vulnerable, Nadal did not try to hide a thing.

“Yeah. Without a doubt,” replied the 36-year-old from Spain, whose 2022 was littered with health concerns that included chronic pain in his left foot, damaged rib cartilage and a torn abdominal muscle. “I have been losing more than usual. … I need to live with it and just fight for the victories.”

Looking ahead to his upcoming encounter in Rod Laver Arena against Jack Draper, a fellow left-hander who is a 21-year-old from England ranked 40th, Nadal said: “I think I’m prepared to play well. We’ll see Monday if I’m prepared to win.” As for his assessment of Djokovic’s form, Nadal offered this: “He ended last year well, and he started this year well.”

Sure did. None of which matters to Djokovic as much as another Grand Slam title would. Win what would be a 10th Australian Open championship in two weeks’ time, and the 35-year-old from Serbia would increase his haul to 22 majors and pull even with Nadal (both surpassed the 20 for the now-retired Roger Federer).

“I mean, that’s why I keep on playing professional tennis, (competitive) tennis, because I want to be the best. I want to win the biggest tournaments in the world. There is no secret about it,” Djokovic said three days before he’ll open with a matchup in Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday night against the 75th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena, whose resume contains exactly one match win in Melbourne.

“It doesn’t get bigger than this. You have four Slams that historically have been the biggest events in our sport,” Djokovic said. “It’s also one of the biggest reasons why I was really looking forward to come back to Australia: because of my record here.”

He’s been pleased by the greetings he’s received from spectators in Adelaide and Melbourne, where he played an exhibition match at Rod Laver Arena on Friday with Nick Kyrgios — the man Djokovic beat in the Wimbledon final last July.

“I didn’t know how that’s going to go like, after the events of last year,” Djokovic said. “I’m very grateful for the kind of energy and reception, love and support I got last night.”

As for the way other players have greeted him, Djokovic said: “Well, I have not really been asking around: ‘What do you guys think of me coming back here?’ The ones I spoke to have been really supportive. No one has yet been negative on my return.”

Since arriving in Australia, Djokovic has frequently mentioned that he doesn’t hold a grudge over being kicked out of the country in 2022 for failing to follow its coronavirus rules — which have since been relaxed — and said Saturday: “Probably, if I’m not able to move on, I wouldn’t be here.”