The words “epic” and “best ever” have been tossed around to describe the Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, a record-setting match that stretched for five hours and 53 minutes before Djokovic prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5. And those words would seem justified after such a grueling test of endurance and determination.
Still, many consider the 2008 Wimbledon final, Nadal’s first win over Roger Federer on the Wimbledon grass, to be the greatest match of all time. Others will look further back in the game’s history. So where does this Aussie marathon final stack up? SI.com’s Bryan Armen Graham joins The Toss to discuss.
Today’s Toss: How does the 2012 Australian Open men’s final stack up against tennis’ greatest matches?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me this week on the Toss, Bryan. I’m not sure we’ll be roping in as much of our movie knowledge in this one, but the drama that played out over five hours and 53 minutes offered more insight into the human condition than Tree of Life.
Now that we’ve had a few days to process the adrenaline high that was the men’s final, it’s time to get back to what tennis fans and pundits do best: comparisons. How does Djokovic’s win over Nadal stack up against the greatest tennis matches of all time?
It was great, but it wasn’t the greatest.
For four years now, the flag for “The Greatest Match of All Time” has been firmly planted at Centre Court at Wimbledon, a salute to Rafael Nadal’s first Wimbledon title over Roger Federer in 2008, which he won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 after four hours and 48 minutes of rain-interrupted play. That match, apart from being high quality from start to finish, had more storylines than a Robert Altman movie: No. 1 vs. No. 2, righty vs. lefty, Swiss cool vs. Spanish fire. Nadal had lost to Federer in two straight Wimbledon finals at Wimbledon and he had never won a non-Roland Garros Grand Slam title. In fact, Nadal was firmly rooted in the No. 2 spot behind Federer. So when Federer dumped a forehand into the middle of the net as twilight descended, a new era dawned. Nadal completed his first Channel-Slam, eventually ascended to No. 1, and two years later he had the career Slam firmly in pocket.
The 2008 Wimbledon final changed the landscape of men’s tennis. The same can’t be said about the 2012 Australian Open final. After all that sturm und drang, the favorite for the title still won. Djokovic won his third straight Slam, successfully defended his title, and extended his winning streak against Nadal seven straight. if Nadal had pulled off the upset, there would be a stronger case for this match. But even if he had, a look at the numbers reveals the difference in quality between both matches.
In the Wimbledon final, Federer and Nadal combined for 149 winners to 79 unforced errors over the course of a match that, though an hour shorter, resulted in 413 points. In contrast, the Australian Open final combined for 101 winners to a whopping 140 unforced errors over 369 points. Granted we’re comparing grass courts to hard, and Federer’s ability to shorten points at the net or with his serve (he hit 25 aces that day) undoubtedly skews the stats. But even to the naked eye, anyone watching this Sunday’s final had to acknowledge that neither player reached full flight, and, for as well as Djokovic played, he won with his B (OK, maybe B-plus) game. For quality, you have to give the nod to the Wimbledon final.
But what the Australian Open final had that the Wimbledon final lacked (and I use “lacked” very loosely), is guts. With neither man at his best, both had to rely on the intangibles that make them such great players. Nadal’s competitive fire has never been tested as much as it was on Sunday, saving three break points in the fourth set with some clutch serving to hold and then battling back with whatever amount of determination was left in his legs to come back from 3-5 down in the fourth-set tiebreak to level the match. What Nadal was able to do is precisely why I love and watch sports, for those moments when a player or team transcends the Xs and Os and reveals their character. Similarly, Djokovic, who was two points away from winning this match in four sets and stood punch-drunk for much of the fifth, hung tough until Nadal blinked (oh how he’ll think of that missed backhand up the line at 30-15 in the final set) and he seized his moment, his body bending and his sneakers screeching as though it were the first set. Those moments are when you throw the scoreboard and the stat sheet out the window and sit at rapt attention. The repeated cries of “How are these guys still doing this?!” was the tagline for the match, and it’s that state of wonderment that elevates it into the game’s “epics.”
So maybe the 2012 Australian Open final wasn’t “The Greatest Match of All Time.” But the way they traded blows for nearly six hours and never tapped out, pushing their bodies and each other up to and past their limits (was there a more poignant scene than Nadal and Djokovic, both bent over holding their knees during the trophy ceremony, as seen above, being given chairs and water to keep them from collapsing?), I wouldn’t hesitate to call Sunday’s final the most remarkable display of athleticism and competitiveness we’ve ever seen.
Bryan Armen Graham: The evolution of tennis makes these types of discussions as fruitless as they are irresistible — like trying to compare Beowulf with Infinite Jest, or The Jazz Singer with Avatar. Novak and Rafa would be the first to admit they’re standing on the shoulders of giants, pushing themselves to dizzying heights made possible only by the inexorable progress of technology and athletic conditioning. By the time Djokovic pounded his chest and sounded that barbaric scream at nearly 2:00 a.m. (Melbourne time) on Monday morning, the punditry from Piers Morgan to Rio Ferdinand had seemingly run dry of superlatives for what we’d just witnessed.
Whether the passage of time upholds the early hyperbole and bluster, I can’t say. All I know for sure is Djokovic-Nadal is more than worthy of a place on the short list of classic matches that have transcended the sport and made lifelong fans of curious passers-by.
The 2008 Wimbledon final was so much about context: all those stylistic contrasts and foils you mentioned above, plus the melodramatic touch of it being the last match on Centre Court to be threatened by darkness, with the All England Club having already unveiled plans for the retractable roof that debuted in 2009.
But Sunday’s gripping showdown wasn’t exactly wanting for meaty storylines. Both players had battled physical ailments during the fortnight — Djokovic with a bout of hay fever that hindered his breathing, Nadal with his troublesome right knee that had been bandaged so heavily. And yes, while Novak had entered this year’s tournament as the favorite, having won six consecutive matches against the charismatic Spaniard, there were questions about whether his historic 2011 campaign was sustainable, whether the law of averages would take hold long enough to allow Nadal, Federer and the resurgent Andy Murray to catch up. Say nothing of the fact that Djokovic rallied from a break down in the fifth set to defeat Nadal in five hours, 53 minutes — just two days after winning a four-hour, 50-minute semifinal over Murray.
Right now, it’s difficult to place the latest installment of Djokovic-Nadal above such classics as Bjorn Borg’s five-set triumph over John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final or Ivan Lendl’s come-from-behind stunner over McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final. (Personally, I was surprised not to hear more references to Nadal’s marathon 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 victory over Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final — a see-sawing, four-hour, 22-minute title match that’s clearly become dwarfed historically by their Wimbledon meeting six months prior.) But there can be no question that Sunday’s classic final deserves a place alongside those iconic matches.
You decide: Vote in the poll above and sound off in the comments for your pick for the greatest match of all time.