Oh, what has Novak Djokovic done? By winning his third Australian Open title and his fifth Grand Slam trophy in seven minutes short of six hours, he has rewritten history, that is for sure. Melbourne Park has never witnessed a longer match, the four major championships have never produced a longer final and no one who saw Djokovic and Rafael Nadal conjure up superhuman rallies at 1.30am has ever seen anything like it. But that was only the half of it.
Djokovic, the master of all he surveys at the top of the world rankings had won and, in doing so, he had inflicted the deepest of wounds to Nadal’s psyche. It was the Serb’s seventh successive win in a final and his third consecutive victory over Nadal in a Grand Slam final. In the other finals, the normally indomitable Spaniard had seemed lost. He could not formulate a plan of attack to hurt his tormentor and he simply ran out of ideas. But this time, Nadal had a plan, this time he knew what to do and how to do it. And then Djokovic beat him.
Over the course of the off-season, Nadal had come up with an idea: be more aggressive, try to go for the winners, attack whenever possible – and wise – and take the battle to Djokovic. But Djokovic saw him coming and cut him off at the pass. Nadal was strong, he was determined and he was never going to give in. And Djokovic matched him. Nadal showed passion, he showed fire and he had courage. And still Djokovic beat him. The man from Serbia seems invincible – and that will hurt Nadal more than he will ever say.
“I'm playing against one of the greatest players ever,” Djokovic said, tired but euphoric after the match. “The player that is so mentally strong, and he always comes up with his best game and best shots at the right moments.
“So I tried mentally to hang in there, to hold my composure, to hold my emotions. And, you know, even when I was 4‑2 down I still pushed myself up to the limit.
“To be able to mentally hang in there and physically – 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. I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and matter of, you know, wanting this more than maybe other player in the certain point. It's just incredible effort.”
As is the way of such things, the match, all 353 minutes and 369 points of it, turned on a couple of minutes and a handful of points. The opening set had been long but uninspired – both men were simply warming up – and the next two sets had been more or less one-way traffic. Then, in the fourth set, just when Nadal looked to be on his way home, the Spaniard pounced.
From 3-4 and 0-40 down in that set, Nadal exploded into action. He ripped the break points from his rival’s grasp as he leathered his forehand, changed up a gear on his backhand and then produced a couple of welting serves. In five points the match had been turned on its head.
At that very moment, the rain began to fall and there was a 10-minute delay while the roof as closed. It was not long enough to interrupt the rhythm of the match but it was just long enough to allow both men a moment to think.
Djokovic, with the look of a man who had just watched his winning lottery ticket disappear through a crack in the floor, had too long to ponder the thought that he had been one point away from serving for the match while Nadal had time to draw confidence and inspiration from his comeback. But by that stage, the match was only four hours old – we had barely got started.
Even so, Djokovic, the man who had swept all before him in 2011, could smell victory. As he romped through his next service game, he turned to his team in the players’ box and held one finger aloft. He was one game away from the trophy. One more game. Only one winner. Only one No.1. Little did he know what was to come.
Nadal fought back as never before. He had a new spring in his legs and he had a new lease of life while Djokovic was fading. The Serb had taken nearly five hours to beat Andy Murray on Friday night and if that had not drained enough from his fuel tank, the thought that he had never won back-to-back five set matches before must have made him slightly wary. When Nadal broke for a 4-2 lead in the fifth set, it did not seem possible that Djokovic could find a way back. But that was the moment when everything changed again.
This time it was just one point that did the damage. Nadal was cruising, he was in charge – and then he missed a sitter. At 30-15 up, he pulled Djokovic around the court, created the opening and then missed the backhand. He had yards of court to play with and he sent the backhand wide. Suddenly there was a new look in the champion’s eyes: he saw a weakness, he saw a chance and summoning up new reserves of strength, he broke back. Now Djokovic moved into the driving seat and it was Nadal who was in trouble.
There was still plenty of work to be done but now Djokovic was dragging his aching body to victory and Nadal could not stop him. One rally of 32 strokes left the Serb flat on his back and gasping for breath – he got a standing ovation when he picked himself up – but he would not be beaten. He howled to the heavens for help and he doubled over in pain as Nadal kept making him run and lunge but still he would not let Nadal take the trophy from him. After five-and-a-half hours, the two warriors were still dead level at two sets all and 4-4 and deuce. Nadal was not going to give in but, nevertheless, Djokovic was not going to lose and calling on all the confidence and experience he had gathered from the past 12 months, he edged painfully to the title.
“I played more aggressive,” Nadal said, trying to put a positive spin on matters. “I played with more winners than ever. My serve worked well. The mentality and the passion was there another time better than probably never another time.
“I never put him in this situation during 2011, all 2011, so that's another positive thing for me. I didn't have mental problems today against him. I had in 2011 all these mental problems. Today I didn't have.”
But for all that, it was not enough. As 2012 unfolds and more finals come and go, Nadal will know his best was not enough. More importantly, Djokovic will never forget it.