Rafael Nadal has fought and won heroic matches before, but on Sunday night at the Australian Open despite putting every ounce of energy into the final, he had to suffer the most heart-wrenching defeat of his career when defending champion Novak Djokovic overcame him 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 in a record-setting 5h 53min victory to win the title.
Perhaps no player other than Nadal could have come as close to Djokovic as Nadal did, but he simply willed himself close to victory as he was outplayed for much of the match, but kept pushing.
The 10-time Grand Slam champion simply does not have it within himself to give in.
After a difficult 2011, Nadal was pleased he could be part of an epic battle against Djokovic, win or lose.
“That's nice be there fighting, trying to go to the limit, bring your body to the limit of his chances,” he said. “Something I really enjoy, and I always said is good to enjoy suffering, no? So when you are fit, with passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering. So today I had this feeling, and is a really good one. I suffered during the match, but I enjoyed all the troubles that I had during all the match. I tried to be there, to find solutions all the time. I played a lot with my heart. I played a lot with my mind, and is something that is nice to be around and not just play tennis.”
He had come into the match having lost six finals to the Serbian in 2011, who grabbed the No.1 ranking from him as well as the Wimbledon and US Open titles. He pushed himself hard to try and find solutions, but he could not find a final one and in the off-season, he and his coach Uncle Toni tried to devise a strategy that would put him over the top.
Nadal did not play perfectly at the 2012 Australian Open, but he was spot on in the clutch in subduing the aggressive Czech Tomas Berdych and the great Roger Federer when they severely threatened him.
But Djokovic was another matter. He had admitted the backboard of a Serbian had gotten into his head a bit as he could not find away around him. He knew that he needed to add power to his first serve and backhand in order to stay with him, but after a rickety first set when his foe did not play anywhere near his top level, he mostly reverted back to the steely defensive posture that is impossible for almost every player in the world to overcome – except Djokovic.
So the Serbian swamped him in the second and third sets and appeared on his way to a fairly routine, long and inevitable four-set victory, the kind that he hung on Nadal in the Wimbledon and the US Open finals.
Briefly, at the start of the fourth set, he looked like he was down and out, that he had no idea how to respond to Djokovic inside the baseline barrage, but he decided to hang tough and see if he could get his claws into the match.
He had said throughout the fortnight that his attempt to push his game to a higher level was a work in progress and the only thing he could do was "try his best". And that he did, even though Djokovic was clearly out-hitting him.
Finally, almost at the last moment, he took his gloves off, got out of his defensive posture and began to fly. Down 0-40 at 3-4 in the fourth set, he ripped two groundstrokes winners and three service winners to hold. He battled into a tiebreaker, and after Djokovic nailed a big forehand winner into the open court and 5-3 lead, Nadal regrouped. He played incredible defense in the next two points and coaxed two errors out of the Serbian. Then he crushed a 182km/h flat service winner out wide to go ahead 6-5. Another few sprints side to side and a hooking Djokovic forehand that fell wide and Nadal had stolen the tiebreaker 7-5 and was back into the match.
Nadal appeared to have seized the momentum, but if Djokovic has proved anything during his amazing 14-month stretch, it's that he's willing to lay every molecule of his body on the line to grab a win and it showed.
One long, exhausting rally followed another. Each man seemingly came up with an epic shot every other point. But while Nadal served reasonably well during the last two sets, he could not match Djokovic. He took a 4-2 lead in the fifth set and at 30-15 had a great look at a pas down the line but missed it by an inch. Then the contests slipped out of his grasp. Djokovic managed to break him back to 4-3 in the fifth set, but despite a fair portion of the crowd who kept trying to pull him to victory, Djokovic simply returned better than he did and broke him again to 5-6 when Nadal’s slice backhand fell into the net. Despite the lead he never felt in control because of how topsy-turvy the contest was.
“With the 4-2 was advantage I felt very well physically in the moment. I felt with very positive energy, and I played a fantastic first point of the 4-2 with the forehand winner down the line after he had that return,” he said. “Is something unbelievable how he returns, no? His return probably is one of the best of the history. It's true I had big mistake with 30-15. But it's not moment to think about that. That's another just moment in an almost six hours match. Forget about that knowing that I really had real, very real chances to have the title and to win against a player who I lost six times last year. I never put him in this situation during 2011, so that's another positive thing for me.
In the next game, Djokovic shut him down, winning the longest contest in Australian Open and Grand Slam final history with a big serve and huge forehand.
Somewhat remarkably, Nadal did not break down in tears during the presentation ceremony and took positives out of the match. He may have left the Australian Open as the runner-up, but as Djokovic said, in some ways, they were both winners. Moreover, Nadal feels like he broke Djokovoc’s hold on him.
“I didn't have mental problems today against him,” he said. “I had in 2011 all these mental problems. Today I didn't have. I compete with normal conditions against him, no? So that's another positive thing. Probably never say that many positive things after I lose.”