Five things about Novak Djokovic’s victory over Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, a five-set, almost six-hour victory which was the longest match in the history of the Australian Open, as well as the longest grand slam final.
The ‘mythical’, ‘impossible’ calendar-year sweep of the grand slams? Novak Djokovic can do it this season.
After this, a great show of brilliance, resilience and bloody-mindedness which lasted almost six hours, which finished after 1am, and which was the longest match in the history of the Australian Open, as well as the longest slam final anywhere, surely anything is possible? It is half a century now since Rod Laver went through the card in 1962, winning all four of the sport’s biggest prizes for the sport’s first ‘grand slam’. In 1969, Laver achieved a second calendar sweep of the slams. No one has done it since. Watching Djokovic smoke winners past Rafael Nadal in the stadium named after Laver, you had to think that anything is possible with the Serbian this year. Last year, he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, with his only defeat at the slams coming when he lost to Federer in the semi-finals of the French Open on a dark, slippery court. The common consensus, before this Australian Open began, was that Djokovic’s 2012 would not be strong as his 2011. There was good reason, after the world number one collapsed on to his back, to have a rethink.
So Djokovic, who won all six of his matches with Nadal last season, extended that sequence to an astonishing seven. It also meant that Nadal became the first man since tennis turned professional to lose three successive slam finals, having also succumbed to Djokovic at Wimbledon and the US Open. If Djokovic wins a first French Open title in Paris this spring, he will complete the career grand slam, and also become the first man since Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors simultaneously (Murray could find himself playing in the same era as three career grand-slammers, which would be confirmation of the opposition he is facing). That would be the Nole Slam (credit Serena Williams, who achieved the self-styled Serena Slam spread over a couple of seasons). Win in Paris, and then we could talk some more about the calendar grand slam.
Nadal’s missed backhand is going to be on replay.
The regulation backhand that Nadal missed when he was 4-2 up in the fifth set is going to be on a loop in the cinema in his head.
Djokovic’s will to win borders on the frightening.
Only a couple of days earlier, Djokovic had played for almost five hours in beating Andy Murray in the semi-finals. This final went way beyond five hours, it was the first time that these two had played a five-setter against each other at the slams, it was longer than any match ever played at this tournament, and the figure-skating was bumped off BBC2. In the last couple of rounds against Murray and then Nadal, he turned around deficits to start crunching winners. In the early stages, on what was a warm and airless evening, Djokovic was angrily ripping off his T-shirt and bouncing his racket, and it looked as though his body and his mind were still affected by his match with Murray. Yet, as soon as Djokovic found his range and his rhythm, he started to hurt Nadal.
True, Djokovic could have won this in four sets. In the fourth set, Djokovic had three points to break for a 5-3 lead, after he had Nadal at 0-40 down. Nadal played his best tennis of the match to hold, and then we had a delay, as the rain was mopped up and the roof was closed. On the resumption, Djokovic was two points away from victory when he led 5-3 in the tiebreak, but Nadal won the next four points. If Djokovic was going to struggle with the after-effects of the match against Murray, he would struggle in the fifth set. Nadal led 4-2 in the fifth set, only to miss that backhand and drop his serve. Djokovic broke again, and then served out the match for the championships (after saving a breakpoint).
Block out the psychobabble: Nadal’s mind is still as strong as it ever was.
He was fist-pumping like he has never fist-pumped before. He was using the great surges of energy and noise from around the stadium. The way that Nadal was carrying himself, when he was trailing by two sets to one, was instructive. The Majorcan is the same as he ever was, what the Australians would call ‘a battler’. Beforehand, some were suggesting that Djokovic’s run of wins against Nadal – six from their six meetings last season – had done some psychological damage to the Spaniard. They were suggesting that, Djokovic had been doing to Nadal what Nadal has been doing to Roger Federer (the Swiss has not beaten at the slam for five years). The theory was that was Nadal was in Federer’s head, Djokovic in Nadal’s (which sounded like very complicated living arrangements). That all looked like nonsense as Nadal took this into a fifth set.
Nadal’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. Nadal apparently had a ‘poor year’ last season. Most other players would happily win one grand slam (the French Open), reach the final of two others (Wimbledon and the US Open), finish the year as the world number two, and help their country to win the Davis Cup. Yes, he has lost the last three slam finals. But he has still reached the final of the last four majors. And had he beaten Djokovic he would put himself level with Bjorn Borg and Laver on 11 slams. All at the age of 25. So Nadal, beaten once again, is stuck on ‘only’ 10 majors. Federer said after his semi-final defeat not to feel sorry for him. The same applies to Nadal after he lost the title-match.
“More bananas please,” came the request from the umpire, and that was early in the third set. If excessive grunting is mostly, if not exclusively, seen as a public relations issue for the women’s tour, slow play is mostly a problem for men’s tennis. For all the pace of the rallies – the speed of the players around the court, and of their shots – Nadal and Djokovic must the two slowest players between points. A lot of towelling down, bouncing of the ball before serving (Djokovic) and faffing went into this. The first set, which Nadal won 7-5, took an hour and 20 minutes. As someone pointed out, at least with excessive grunting, the armchair viewer can press the mute button. With slow play, there is no way of fast-forwarding through all that dead time. If they had not been so slow between points, why, they could even have completed this inside five hours.