MELBOURNE, Australia — The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days, a credit to the insane level of tennis that the top men have produced on a regular basis, seemingly on demand. Sunday’s Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal certainly earned that label — though it transformed into a classic almost out of thin air.
For three-and-a-half sets, the story was a familiar one. Djokovic, after a subpar first set, won the next two in pretty straightforward fashion and led 4-3 in the fourth with triple break point on Nadal’s serve. The way Djokovic was serving and playing, a break would surely propel him to a relatively routine victory, his seventh in a row against Nadal.
But the Spaniard, renowned for his competitiveness, would not go quietly. He reeled off five consecutive points to hold, and suddenly Djokovic had gone from being on the verge of closing out his third Australian Open title to confronting a resurgent Nadal in all his snarling, fist-pumping glory.
From there, the two best players in the world put on what Nadal called, in an understatement, a “very good show.” It was a little better for Djokovic, who rallied in the fifth set and outlasted Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in five hours and 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final since the Open Era started in 1968 and the longest Australian Open match in history.
With his third consecutive win over Nadal in a Grand Slam final, the top-ranked Djokovic signaled to his rivals that he has no intention of slowing down after finishing 70-6 with three major titles last season. And a more aggressive Nadal — like Andy Murray before him in the semifinals against the Serb – showed that if the 24-year-old Djokovic wants to replicate or even surpass his 2011 results, he’ll have to keep finding another gear.
“I’m a professional tennis player. I’m sure any other tennis player would say the same: We live for these matches,” Djokovic said. “We’re trying to dedicate all our life to this sport to come to the situation where we play a six-hour match for a Grand Slam title.”
Djokovic, now a five-time Grand Slam champion (he’s won three in a row and four of five), called this the greatest victory of his career, owing to the record duration and the fact that he summoned this performance two days after battling Murray for four hours and 50 minutes. Nadal appreciated being part of history, too, and took consolation from the way he challenged Djokovic.
“I wanted to win, but I am happy about how I did,” an upbeat Nadal said. “I didn’t play at a lower level than him for a long time, so that’s a very positive thing. The important thing for me, during all 2011, I didn’t play much like this.
“I never put him in this situation during 2011, so that’s another positive thing. I didn’t have mental problems today against him. I had, in 2011, all these mental problems. I competed [Sunday] with normal conditions against him, so that’s another positive thing. Probably never say that many positive things after I lose.”
The 10-time Grand Slam winner summed it up this way: “I had my chances against the best player in the world.”
Indeed, a single stroke in the fifth set helped swing the match back in Djokovic’s favor. Nadal was soaring, holding easily and leading 4-2 thanks to a break in the sixth game, while a weary Djokovic had lost pop on his shots. Up 30-15 on his serve with a 5-2 advantage in sight, Nadal got a short ball and was well positioned to hit a winner. Instead, the Spaniard hesitated and sent his backhand wide, turning a potential 40-15 edge into a precarious 30-all situation. Djokovic seized the opening to break back, using his return of serve to help shift momentum again.
“It’s something unbelievable how he returns,” Nadal said. “His return probably is one of the best in history. I never played against a player who is able to return like this. Almost every time.”
Nadal saved a break point at 4-4 and then another at 5-5, but Djokovic converted a second break point in that 11th game of the set and then served out the match. Djokovic ripped off his shirt in celebration after winning his sixth consecutive five-setter.
“It was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies,” Djokovic said. “I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and a matter of wanting this more than maybe the other player in the certain point. It’s just incredible effort.”
So, as much as things stay the same, they are changing. Last year, Djokovic trounced Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in the Australian Open final in two hours and 39 minutes. This year, the Scot took Djokovic to five sets and nearly five hours, a match that left the fourth-ranked Murray talking about how he’s “a different player, [with] a different attitude to this time last year. … Everyone always says to me, ‘Andy’s too passive. He doesn’t go for his shots enough.’ I think I did that [in the semifinals].” Last year, Nadal lost in four sets to Djokovic in both Grand Slam meetings. On Sunday night and into Monday morning, he pushed Djokovic to the limit, finally losing at 1:37 a.m. local time.
Needless to say, the 2012 season is shaping up to be a dramatic one. Djokovic, though, would just like a minute to catch his breath.
“There is much that awaits for me,” he said, “but I definitely should enjoy the present moment.”