It may only be the first week of the 2016 tennis season, but already there is a mouth-watering final in store. On Saturday, world No.1 Novak Djokovic will take on resurgent 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in the for the Qatar Open title in Doha. It will be the pair’s 47th meeting, an ATP Tour record, with the head-to-head count currently standing at 23 wins apiece. Not only will Saturday’s match break the tie but it could reveal much about what lies ahead for the rest of the year, and certainly in the Australian Open, which gets underway in just over a week.
Djokovic won all four meetings between the two last season, as he dominated men’s tennis. The Serbian lifted three of the four Grand Slam titles, and even in the one he didn’t win he still reached the final, ending Nadal’s domination of the French Open along the way. For Nadal, meanwhile, that emphatic loss at Roland Garros was just one of a number of low points in what was the most disappointing year for the Spaniard since he first burst onto the tour as a teenage prodigy over a decade ago.
Yet an improved end to last year, which saw him reach the finals in Beijing and Basel and beat Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals, has continued into the start of 2016. After winning an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi, the 29-year-old, who has opted to change his stringing for the new season, has impressed on his way through to his 99th career final.
In the Doha semifinals against world No. 94 Illya Marchenko, he cruised through 6-3 6-4 to bury the memory of his performance in the same event 12 months ago, when he crashed out in the opening round.
“I did a few good things, and I'm happy with the victory, being in the first final of the season in the first official tournament is something great,” Nadal said afterward, according to the ATP Tour website. “For sure it's important for my confidence, confirming that the end of the 2015 season had been something realistic and [in] the beginning of 2016 I [am] still playing well.”
Djokovic’s task was a little tougher in the last four. As well as going down an early break in the first set, he then required a second-set tiebreak to get past world No. 6 Tomas Berdych in straight sets. Already he has gone further than he did in last year’s Qatar Open, which incredibly was the only tournament in the whole of 2015 in which he failed to make the final. And Djokovic revealed he is relishing his latest clash with Nadal.
“Because we played so many times and because he’s probably the greatest rival I ever had in my career, it means a lot, in every possible meaning of that word, when I play Nadal,” he said in an on-court interview following his semifinal win. “It’s always a great challenge to play him on any surface in any city, the rivalry goes on. I’m just looking forward to a great battle.”
Prediction: Nadal couldn’t come close to matching Djokovic last year, but there is plenty of reason to think that their first meeting of 2016 will be a lot more competitive. If he can maintain the aggressive play he has displayed this week, then Nadal will cause Djokovic problems. Still, the world No. 1 should ultimately prevail, although in a contest that could provide confidence to Nadal for the year ahead.
Start time: 10 a.m. EST
Live stream: beIN Sports Connect