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Tennis: Wounded gladiators set for final battle

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are agreed: their men's final of the 2012 Australian Open will come down to fitness. It is, after all, the issue that binds the entire Tour in common purpose.

The players' insurrection over workload that was spiked in New York and subsided in Shanghai bubbled up again in Melbourne over the past fortnight and is the prevailing backdrop to the men's game.

It might not be an issue to inspire a Jarrow march but, for athletes who red-line their systems in nearly every match beyond the quarter-finals, it is at the core of their self-interest.

So, what shape are the finalists in? Both have hinted at recent problems, Nadal a pinched tendon in his right knee that he has strapped throughout, Djokovic a slight ping in his left hamstring and, more worryingly, trouble again with his breathing that sapped his energy against David Ferrer and again against Andy Murray. "I've seen a doctor and I've talked with a couple of players that have had allergy problems this year in Australia for no reason," the defending champion said of his breathing breakdowns that have twice had him sucking up air mid-match.

"They are problems they didn't have in the last couple years. I suppose that's my problem, as well. I've been trying to do everything possible to clear that out. But we are all surrounded with the [courtside] flowers. It's really difficult to take that away. Physically, I need to be fit. I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I've won six finals when we played in 2011 and I've had lots of success against him.

"On the other hand, it's a new year. It's a new challenge. It's a different situation. He has maybe a day's advantage over me for recovery [having played the first semi-final, against Roger Federer on Thursday] and for getting ready for the finals. That's going to be my main priority and concern, to physically be able to perform my best and be ready to play five sets. If I am able to do that, then I can believe that I can win."

As for his opponent, Djokovic says: "Roger started off really well [against Nadal]. It was an incredible effort from Rafa to come back and [hit] some incredible passing shots. That's why he's a champion. That's why he's one of the best players to ever play this game. He's never giving up. He has a fighting spirit. He has very few weaknesses."

Some of those have settled around both knees for years now; others visit his shoulder, or his feet. Nadal is never free of pain. It is a wonder he plays through it so often and with such brilliance.

"I am enjoying these two days off," he said yesterday. "I practised for two hours, and felt I need to move well the body."

When it was put to him that Djokovic's coach reckoned it was unfair he had two days' rest to Nadal's one, the Mallorcan agreed, with qualifications.

"Well, that's what it is," he said. "In 2009 I played longer than him in the semi-finals. I played more than five hours at very high intensity, too. I had only one day and Federer had two, no? I recovered for the final, so I think you can say it's unfair, yes, but not crazy unfair.

"Really unfair is the US Open when you don't have a day off between semi-finals and final. If the [Friday] match happened in the US Open and the other semi-final is in straight sets, you are in big trouble for the finals. Having one day off, I believe you are not in big trouble."

Destined to forever talk like Poirot, the Spaniard nevertheless made himself understood well enough.

He said of the Djokovic-Murray match: "The second set was fantastic. Was really impressive level from both of them. First set I didn't see, but the fourth seems like Andy was very tired. He wasn't ready to play the fourth, and [Novak] was much more fresh.

"The fifth seems like Andy was very tired, too, because Novak had the control of the situation. After playing for four hours 50, it's normal you will be in trouble. Novak plays well and match was done. It was an emotional match, and I enjoyed watching on TV."

As for the final, he says: "He is the favourite after being No 1 in the world and after playing fantastic and beating me the last six times. So just happy to be there."

Just "happy to be there"? Not likely. This could be another war.

If Djokovic is fit, he will win -- and in all probability more easily than he did against Murray.


Djokovic v Nadal,

BBC2, 8.30am

Sunday Indo Sport