Tennis

Djokovic-Nadal final one for the ages

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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MELBOURNE, Australia

Stupendous. Pick another word from the dictionary of excellence and it will fall short of doing justice to what the world's two best tennis players served up for an astonishing five hours and 53 minutes in the final of the 2012 Australian Open.

Rafael Nadal

SECOND TO ONE

No. 1 Djokovic got the best of Nadal once again in the 2012 Australian Open men's final. View photos

It was the 100th anniversary of this tournament, and Novak Djokovic, who somehow managed to hold on to his crown, celebrated in a manner that will be talked of down the ages.

Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal — his predecessor as world No. 1 — 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5.

The fact that there were still well more than 14,000 people in Rod Laver Arena at 1:40 on a Monday morning says everything one needs to know about just how riveting this duel was; how extraordinary the level of skill and commitment from both men as they refused to bow to whatever the scoreboard was saying at the time and fought on, giving every last drop of energy in their bodies.

For Djokovic to have prevailed — after needing four hours and 50 minutes to beat Andy Murray in Friday's semifinal — makes him superhuman.

As had been the case in other matches at Melbourne Park this year, the Serb looked dead on his feet at various stages, which was hardly surprising. What did come as a shock was the fact that he looked perfectly fresh until the end of the fourth set. In the opening games of the fifth, he also looked tired as his shots lost their sting and some plopped into the net. It seemed that, on this occasion, there would be no time for recovery.

But Djokovic has reserve tanks no one knew existed in the human body. As Nadal faltered, he found yet another spark of energy and came through to win the fourth Grand Slam out of the last five he has played. In the process, he continued his barely believable run against Nadal, whom Djokovic has now defeated in seven consecutive finals at all levels.

The match began in the most humid and uncomfortable weather of the tournament so far as rained closed in. Both players showed signs of nerves and of needing time to find their rhythm. Nadal was quicker off the blocks, with a 76 percent first-serve rate to the Serb's 47 percent, and he hit more winners. Even though he lost a 4-2 lead when Djokovic broke back, Nadal's tactics of playing close to his baseline paid off, and he broke again to win the first set for the first time in five meetings.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal

YOU AGAIN?

Seeing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in a final is becoming commonplace. Relive their memorable matches.

But Djokovic soon upped his game and came back at him, sweeping those lethal forehands to all parts of the court and pushing the Spaniard's left-hander farther and farther back. A 5-2 lead was whittled down when Nadal broke back for 4-5. But, serving to stay in the set, Rafa produced one of his worst-ever double faults on set point, hitting his second ball way out of court.

Djokovic was serving so well throughout the third that he dropped only two points on serve out of 18 and closed it out in such style that the match seemed there for the taking. But Nadal, who was always vulnerable on his second serve against such a good returner, served better in the fourth, until he found himself down 0-40 in the eighth game after Djokovic unloaded with an explosive forehand winner.

Then Nadal lit the spark that turned this match into a classic. Instead of succumbing, Rafa came up with five consecutive points of outstanding quality, including a terrific forehand winner, a service winner and an ace.

As the first drops of rain started to fall, Nadal bounced to his chair, knowing he had planted doubt in his opponent's mind. With the roof already a quarter closed, the interruption was relatively brief. And so, in an indoor environment that soon cooled as the air conditioning kicked in, the battle continued.

A tiebreak was the only way to resolve a duel that was now on an even keel, and again Nadal seemed to be sliding toward defeat as he went 3-5 down.

But after another of those eye-popping rallies that had both men covering acres of the court and lunging for impossible returns, Djokovic put one forehand wide and then netted another short. Nadal came up with a big first serve, and the breaker was his, 7-5. He slumped to his knees in relief as the crowd went wild and two young Spanish girls, covered in their country's flag, fell into each other's arms.

The drama continued all through the fifth set. First a very weary-looking Djokovic made three errors that gave Nadal the break and a 4-2 lead. This, surely, was now his match. He looked in good shape, his opponent appeared out on his feet, and the winning post was in sight.

Instead it was Nadal who suddenly looked tentative, as if the memory of all those losses to this man had planted irreversible seeds of doubt. In the very next game, having played a great first point, he had a backhand on the end of his racket. All he had to do was push it down the line and it would have been 40-15. But he missed by a couple of inches. Shocked, he netted a forehand and then put his next forehand long to hand back the precious advantage.

Suddenly Djokovic was a new man again. He knew that standing and hitting was his only path to victory, and he proceeded to score with blistering returns off Nadal's increasingly weak second serve.

But still they fought, and rallies of 19 and then 18 were highlights of the 11th game — which finally, irrevocably, broke the mighty Spanish resistance. Nadal lost his serve again when he put a tired backhand into the net. And although Djokovic tested his supporters' nerves to the breaking point by netting a smash for 30 all, he finally clinched it to pull down the curtain on the longest match in all those 100 years that had gone before.

Nadal was surprisingly relaxed after this new setback.

"It was one of the toughest games I have ever played," he said. "But you just accept. We played a great tennis match. I enjoyed being part of it. I wanted to win, but I am happy about how I did. All of 2011 I didn't play a match like this. I was more aggressive and the passion was there. A lot of positive aspects."

Smiling broadly, he added, "In fact, I have never felt so many positive things after a loss."

Djokovic had only positive things to talk about. Bounding into press conference at 3:40 a.m. in Melbourne, he agreed that it was probably the greatest win of his life, despite having fulfilled a dream by winning Wimbledon last year.

"But to come out on top after nearly six hours is incredible," he said. "A match that is the longest of all Grand Slam finals in history, it makes me want to cry, really. And I am flattered to play in front of Rod Laver and all the other past champions."

Djokovic agreed that either man could have won.

"Rafa deserved to prolong the match. I felt my body started to slow down, and both of us were giving our last drop of energy. In those moments you need some luck. In the end we were both trying to shorten the points by going for big shots."

When someone asked Nadal whether he would sit down and watch the match at some point, he grinned.

"Too long," he said. "Only the highlights."

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