Djokovic takes place among legends

Every athlete needs a signature moment to make history. Titles and championships and stats are needed too, of course. Something has to fill the record books. But the moment adds pictures and memories and oohs and aahs to the words and numbers.

Muhammad Ali had the Thrilla in Manilla, and another one in Zaire. John Elway had The Drive, and Joe Montana The Catch, and Willie Mays the over-the-shoulder nab. Babe Ruth pointed (supposedly) to the bleachers. Michael Jordan? Well, he had a bunch of them.

So after Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in 5 hours, 53 minutes in the final of the Australian Open Sunday, he took the microphone and told Nadal over the PA system: “We made history tonight.’’ He was talking about it being the longest major final ever.

The truth is, Djokovic moved into history because of the match itself.

A classic. An epic. It might have been the greatest match ever played, though I’m still putting Nadal’s moment – the win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon – ahead of it, as well as at least one of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe Wimbledon finals.

But this was the greatest example of two athletes reaching their absolute physical, mental and emotional limits, giving every last drop.

One-on-one. Two guys unable to even stand for the awards ceremony afterward.

While dignitaries in suits blabbed on, Djokovic and Nadal were bent over to grab their knees, then stood up, leaned back on a railing.

Finally, someone brought them chairs.

“I want to thank them for those chairs,’’ Djokovic said, “because it saved our legs.’’

A couple years ago, Djokovic said he was unlucky enough to come along during Federer’s and Nadal’s time. He had it backward. It was the best thing that could have happened to him. They pushed him, gave the highest possible bar, which real champions want.

But also, Nadal and Federer are accepted as among the best ever. That only validates what Djokovic is doing now.

He was already ranked No. 1 last year. But Sunday’s match, which he won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (7-5), 7-5, moved him to a level of history. That’s not to say he’s there with Ali, Mays, Ruth, etc.

But he has won the past three majors, and four of the past five. If he wins the French Open this spring, then he will hold all four major titles at the same time. It would be the fourth time anyone has done that, and the first time since Rod Laver won all four in 1969.

Call it the No-Djok Slam, or the Djoker Slam. Something. Federer never held all four at the same time. Nadal hasn’t. Pete Sampras didn’t. And neither did Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg or Jimmy Connors.

Nadal is still king on the red clay at the French Open. It is his last turf for now. He could still turn things back on Djokovic, though Nadal has lost to him seven times in a row.

Djokovic will be the favorite at the French. If he wins there, then he’ll go on to Wimbledon and the US Open, where he is defending champ.

He would have a very real chance to win six straight majors. It’s a long way away, but Djokovic is so dominant now. History changes that fast in tennis.

Nadal has always said that Federer is the greatest player in history. Someone asked him if he now thinks it’s Djokovic.

“He’s the best in the world,’’ Nadal said. “That’s how great it is. Five (major titles), so the history says that he has a part in the history today.  . . . We’ll see where he arrives.’’

Yes, Djokovic, now 24, has won just five majors. Federer holds the record with 16.

But Djokovic arrived with his win Sunday, after beating Andy Murray in another marathon in the semifinals.

He has become the iron man of all sports, after spending his earlier years accused by opponents of faking injury, illness and sickness. Just 3 ½ years ago, Djokovic complained of playing with back and hip pain at the US Open, and Andy Roddick started mocking him in an interview:

“And a cramp? Bird flu. Anthrax SARS. Common cough and cold.’’

It has been an amazing transformation for Djokovic, partly around his commitment to fitness, and partly around his new gluten-free diet.

But however far Djokovic takes this, he needed that defining moment. He had it won after three sets, but then Nadal found another gear. Nadal was up 4-2 in the fifth set, when Djokovic seemed finished. Then he raised his game another level.

This is really what makes history. And the way they talked afterward showed so much into the heart of an incredible moment like this.

“That’s nice, (to) be there fighting, you know, trying to go to the limit, bring your body to the limit of its chances,’’ Nadal said. “Something I really enjoy, and I always said is it’s good suffer. Enjoy, enjoy suffering. So when you are fit, when you have passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering, no?

“I don’t know if I expressed it very well, but (it) is something that maybe you understand. So today, I had this feeling, and (it) is a really good one. I enjoyed it. I suffered during the match, but I enjoyed all the troubles that I had during the match.’’

Someone asked Djokovic if he knew what Nadal meant by that.

“You know, you are in pain, you are suffering, you know that you’re trying to activate your legs, you’re trying to push yourself another point. Just one more point, one more game.

“You’re going through so much suffering your toes are bleeding. Everything is just outrageous, you know, but you’re still enjoying the pain.’’

Djokovic has his moment. And from here, he continues to fight Nadal and Federer through history. But also, he fights Sampras and Laver and Borg and McEnroe and Connors and . . .