The former coach of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Sloane Stephens, Paul Annacone, says he wouldn’t bet on Rafael Nadal beating reigning champion Novak Djokovic if the old rivals face each other at next month’s Australian Open.
Speaking to The Tennis Channel, the American questioned Nadal’s hard-court record compared to the eight time winner, and his former employer Federer, claiming the Spaniard’s “just a little bit worse” on the surface.
Djokovic leads their head-to-head by 29 wins to 27, but Annacone’s comments appear to have some weight, as Nadal’s not beaten the Serbian away from his favoured clay courts since the US Open in 2013.
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"I think very simply, Rafael Nadal is just a little bit worse on hard-courts than Novak Djokovic in particular and Roger Federer as well on a faster hard-court,” Annacone said.
"But everyone else I’d put him ahead of.
If he plays Novak at the end of the tournament, I’m not betting on him.
“But if he plays anyone else I’ll bet on him. I think the biggest thing for Nadal is to get through the first week relatively comfortably."
Nadal’s only title in Melbourne came 12 years ago, but he’s since won four US Open trophies on hardcourts, the most recent coming in 2019.

Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic to win a 13th French Open title in October - but hasn't beaten the Serb off clay since 2013

Image credit: Getty Images

Annacone’s suggested that that discrepancy could be down to the scheduling, and Nadal possibly beginning the season too slowly.
“When he starts the year in Australia, he’s coming off a long break, he gets a couple of matches, maybe the ATP Cup, here and there”, said Annacone.
“But by the time the US Open comes around, he’s got a little bit of break after Wimbledon. He’s played three Majors already, so that works well for him.”
Nadal won’t have to worry about facing Federer in Melbourne, as the 20-time Grand Slam champion is still recovering from knee surgery.

Our view

It’s true Rafa Nadal’s most comfortable on clay, but he can’t be written off, whoever he plays against.
During these uncertain times, it’s almost impossible to predict how players will react to the delayed start of the Australian Open, and despite the strict coronavirus quarantine rules in place Down Under, they do have an extra month to prepare than usual. Could that benefit Nadal, if, as Annacone suggests, he’s considering the Spaniard to suffer from slow starts to the season?
The ATP Cup, which takes place immediately before the first Grand Slam of the season, is arguably the most intense warm-up tournament for a major that we’ve seen in recent times. It’ll give us a good gauge of where players are at with the preparation.

Novak Djokovic was disqualified for hitting a line judge with a ball during the US Open

Image credit: Getty Images

Novak Djokovic goes into the new campaign with questions around his own form. The Serbian failed to reach the ATP Finals decider, suffered a shock defeat to Lorenzo Sonego in Vienna, and was beaten by - you guessed it - Nadal, in the French Open final.
2020 was tough in general on Djokovic, having caught coronavirus following the misstep of hosting a competition with minimal social distancing, and the unfortunate incident at the US Open, where he was disqualified for hitting a line judge with a ball. It will be interesting to see how Djokovic puts all of that behind him.
With Roger Federer missing Melbourne, Nadal and Djokovic will be heading into the tournament on opposite sides of the draw and on a collision course for a meeting in the final. Annacone may bet against Nadal in that match - but we think there are more sensible ways to spend our money.
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