Rafa vs. Novak: 7th time unlucky?

The Swiss lost to the Spaniard who’ll face the Serb who defeated the Scot. Confusing? That’s the “4S” (iPhone 4S, if you were to ask my daughter Jana) who comprised the men’s semifinalists of the Australian Open.

The Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, bested his lifelong nemesis, the Swiss maestro, Roger Federer. In tonight’s final, he’ll face the Serb, Novak Djokovic. Those three form a “Trivalry.” The man Novak defeated in the semis? The Scot, Andy Murray, who almost won the nearly-five-hour-long contest last Friday.

What happened to R & R? Rafa mentally beats Roger. The analysis is as simple as that. It’s like a Pacquiao facing a Mexican; an Anderson Silva encounter; a Tiger Woods leading on Sunday. Deep down inside, these guys know they’ll win.

It’s the same with Rafa. When he meets eyeball to eyeball with Roger, his confidence level is immeasurable. I’m reading his autobiography, “Rafa,” and—like the book as on TV—there are few athletes EVER who are as dogged and relentless and tenacious as Rafa. The only chance Roger has? When it’s a best-of-three match. In a prolonged five sets setting, Nadal will break you down.

Murray v. Djokovic? That wasn’t tennis; it was an ultramarathon. Sayang. I had wished for Andy to win his first Grand Slam title this month. Instead, he’s become a perennial groomsman. Always at the altar of victory, only to watch the other claim the trophy/bride.

The world No.1? Steve Tignor, one of my favorite writers, said in the other day’s “Some Pain, Some Gain,” column:

“As for Murray’s opponent, can we start calling Novak Djokovic the Benjamin Button of tennis? He starts matches as if he’s just finished playing five hard sets. He breathes deeply on the first changeover. He shuffles off court in the middle of the second set and sits down in an open-mouthed daze, as if he might not be able to answer the bell. Come the three-hour mark, though, the man suddenly has some spring in his step—he’s rounding into shape. After four hours, he’s sliding and grunting at full stretch, flipping up a perfect defensive lob, and then tearing toward the net to smack a forehand winner to break serve. He might as well be starting the match right then and there.”

He reminds me of Lance Armstrong. While climbing the torturous Pyrenees or Alps during the Tour de France, the American would often look depleted. But, it was just “acting.” When overconfidence would creep in, he’d unleash a pedal of fury that would spray dust on the face of Jan Ullrich.

In describing the Novak-Andy epic, Jon Wertheim of SI.com explains: “This was less a tennis match than an endurance contest on opposite sides of a net, two supremely fit athletes depleting their reserves of energy — and then somehow surging and re-surging. Like Mr. T. in Rocky III, before the match, Murray’s coach, Ivan Lendl, offered a one-word prediction for the evening: pain. He got that right. After so many 40-ball rallies, so much scrambling and bending and locomoting, both players became the embodiments of attrition.”

The question is: Can Novak recover, with one day’s rest compared to 48 hours for Rafa, to be 100 percent ready for today’s grand finale?

“I will try to get as much sleep and recovery program underway and hope for the best,” said Djokovic. “I think that’s going to be crucial for me to recover and to be able to perform my best, because Rafa is fit. He’s been playing well. He had an extra day. He definitely wants to win this title.”

True. Not only does Rafa want his 11th major title—he wants to defeat the man who embarrassed him six times last year. Rafa lost to Novak six times in 2011—all in finals; twice on Rafa’s “I’m-supposed-to-be-unbeatable” surface of clay; once in Wimbledon and another at the US Open.

We know who the crowd will cheer for tonight. RAFA! chants will reverberate around Melbourne. Nothing against the equally-nice-guy Novak, but Rafa’s just a super humble and likeable fellow. Plus, that unyielding and Spanish-bullheaded perseverance.

Watch the Australian Open final this 4:30 P.M. on Star Sports/ESPN.

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