In the 100th staging of the men’s Australian Open final, tennis fans were treated to a duel of blockbuster proportions as Novak Djokovic continued his monopoly of Grand Slam events. By STYLI CHARALAMBOUS.
The 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 epic broke several records and had commentators gushing about the possibility of an all-time greatest final. In a time when too many sportsmen are compared to gladiators, this was a contest that belied the hyperbole. The match would last seven minutes short of six hours, making it the longest Grand Slam final in history and the third longest of any tennis match ever played.
Going to the final, Rafael Nadal would have felt good about his chances to end the run of six straight defats, including three major finals, to his friend and great rival Djokovic. With an extra rest day advantage ahead of the decider, and looking to have shaken off his mysterious knee injury, Nadal entered Rod Laver arena with steely look and passionate determination in his eyes that at times seemed missing from his game last year. Even with an extra hour of on-court tennis under his belt than Djokovic, he seemed the fresher of the two as they began the match in the twilight of the Melbourne sky.
Djokovic had complained of breathing problems and looked uncharacteristically lethargic in parts of his gruelling five-set slugfest with Andy Murray, while Nadal, although physically stretched from his own epic semi-final encounter with Federer, did not seem as battle-bruised as his Serbian opponent. That the top four seeds had contested the semi-finals was of no surprise to anyone, and in truth both encounters could have gone either way with any permutation of the final line-up conceivable and worthy of the ticket price. Under these four players, men’s tennis has enjoyed a resurgence, prompting a record-breaking 686,000 fans to pass the turnstiles of Melbourne Park.
The first set was a colossal 80 minutes of tennis, that flew by in an instant. Djokovic’s feet still seem laden with the aftereffects of the semi-final, giving credence to the pundits fears that the Serbian’s tank had eventually run dry after an energy-sapping 2011 in which he left only a few tennis records intact. Nadal’s approach to attack the perceived weaker forehand of the world number one, was paying dividends, hitting the majority of his winners at that single-handed side of Djokovic’s arsenal. With that, Nadal emerged the victor 7-5, breaking Djokovic for the second time to take first set and the momentum of the match.
The second set was it’s own impressive duel, clocking in at a slightly short 66 minutes in which the two players were often guilty of cruelty to tennis balls as the ferocity of their rallies sparked captivating applause from the 21,000-strong stadium attendees. Djokovic had by now kick-started his feet and was moving a lot more freely, in addition to moving his opponent deeper and deeper behind the baseline. Nadal, who favours the back of the court, as most players who learnt their trade on the red clay courts of Europe, was being forced even deeper, often returning well behind the Melbourne signage of the blue Plexicushion Prestige surface. Nadal, so often the dictator of baseline exchanges, was winning a mere 20% of the back-of-the-court rallies.
At 4-5 and serving to stay in the set, Nadal suffered a psychological setback by handing the second set on platter with a double-fault into the net. To accentuate the shift in momentum, the break-point had been set up a blazing forehand down the line that had Djokovic’s supporter box and the thousands of vocal Serbian fans leaping from their seats. Although the scoreboard reflected the match in equal standing, at one set apiece, the crowd could sense Nadal’s mind had, in that moment, succumbed to the anguish of the six consecutive defeats he suffered at the Serbian’s hands last year. Advantage Djokovic.
The third set saw the Serbian consolidate his hold over Nadal, breaking his opponent twice to race to tie-up the third set in 42 minutes. Djokovic was smashing winners at will, taking the ball on the rise on his backhand that single-handers, like Federer, struggle to do. Djokovic hit 11 winners, while Nadal could muster only two, as Djokovic upped the tempo, with his first serve percentage at 72% as he began closing out the Spaniard’s challenge.
By start of the fourth set, many would have been clambering to bet “certain money” on Djokovic claiming his third Australian Open title. But the crowd eager to see battle extend late into the night, began rooting for the Spanish underdog and willing him to win every service game that seemed to require every ounce of motivation and energy in Nadal’s mind and body. Unlike his opponent, Djokovic was racing through his service games often to love, while Nadal was fending off break points and deuce games. By the time the rain came down deep in the fourth set, the crowd were delirious, as Nadal had somehow managed to stay in the contest.
Players took the 10-minute break to close the roof to cool down, as both players dripped with sweat in temperatures that harboured near 30 degrees Celsius, even as the clock passed midnight. When play restarted, Nadal forced a tiebreaker that followed the back-and-forth nature of the match. A Djokovic error handed the set to Nadal, who duly collapsed to his knees as if he had just won the championship. Exactly 88 minutes after the first ball of the fourth set had been served, tennis fans were being treated to another set of a modern-day duel to the death.
Homemade murals depicting Djokovic as an orthodox saint waved in the stands as the two stood toe to toe and waiting for the first to crack under the pressure of the final that now extended past 1am local time. Nadal, with the crowd and momentum of the fourth set behind him, failed to capitalise on the shift, even as Djokovic seemed the more exhausted of the two, often crouching or even collapsing between points and continuously thanking or sending prayers to his big coach in the sky.
Yet neither player was giving up, and nor were the winners drying up. Even as the fuel tanks extended passed the empty mark, both players were still blazing shoulder-twisting winners from all angles of the court. Both players painted the lines, dragging each other from one end of the court to the other. In the end Djokovic would prevail by converting the only the sixth of his 20 break-point opportunities. When eventually, after five hours and 53 minutes, Djokovic hit a cross-court forehand to seal the championship win, he collapsed on his back and screamed to the heavens as he celebrated his fifth major win and his third Australian Open title.
The physical exertion after the match was clear for all to see, with neither player able to stand while sponsors and officials closed the tournament with the necessary formalities. Djokovic himself struggled to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge trophy above his head for photographers, testimony to the challenge Nadal had produced. No doubt both will reflect on the history they created, in a match that could hardly be rivalled in quality and intensity over such an extended period of time. But for Nadal, the spectre of Djokovic continues to loom large and stands between him and the title of greatest of all time that at one stage he seemed destined for. For that accolade, there’s now a new challenger. His name is Novak Djokovic. DM
Photo: Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after defeating Rafael Nadal of Spain in their men’s singles final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne January 30, 2012. REUTERS/Ryan Pierse
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