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Sunday, January 29, 2012
Breaking down Djokovic-Nadal

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- When Rafael Nadal upended Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2008, their duel was proclaimed the greatest match of all time.

Sunday's Australian Open final might have trumped even that.

And this time, Nadal was the one who ultimately suffered.

After going nearly five hours in a semifinal Friday, Novak Djokovic battled past the Spaniard, winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 5 hours, 53 minutes to repeat as Australian Open champion. Djokovic is on a Federer-like roll, having won four of the past five majors, and he handed Nadal an unprecedented third consecutive defeat in a Grand Slam final in the Open era.

Here's how Sunday's thriller unfolded:

Set 1: Nadal 7-5, 80 minutes

Rolling along: It didn't take long for Djokovic to suffer a health scare, now did it? No, it wasn't his breathing issues or a hamstring problem in the fourth game. Instead, Djokovic almost went over on his right ankle. He was fine and didn't call for the trainer.

First blood: For Nadal. Djokovic sent a backhand down the line -- the kind he usually plasters into the corner -- long when facing a break point in the fifth game. But his real mistake was being unprepared earlier in the game when Nadal scrambled to retrieve a volley. He should have known the ball would come back.

Error strewn: Djokovic was indeed missing. On break point with Nadal serving at 3-2, he shanked a routine forehand. Another forehand later almost hit the heavens.

Now that's different: Nadal has been guilty of being too predictable against Djokovic, easing his backhand crosscourt and insisting with the crosscourt forehand. Well, when he broke for 6-5 in the first, he delivered a crushing, flat backhand to win one point and sent a forehand down the line to win another.

Serving notice: In the U.S. Open final, Nadal won only 52 percent of points behind his first serve. In the first set Sunday, it climbed to 66. Nadal mixed up his serve well -- but Djokovic didn't return at his best.

Money's worth: At 1 hour, 20 minutes, the set was two minutes short of the entire women's final. Pity the folks who had tickets Saturday.

Set 2: Djokovic 6-4, 66 minutes

Too confident? Nadal's blood must have been pumping. He'd won the first set, and when he does that in majors, he's nearly invincible.

Upon rifling a backhand down the line to save an early break point, he was even more pumped. That was nothing compared to his backhand rocket down the line in the fourth game.

However, he became too exhilarated. Nadal quickly misfired on two forehands and was broken for 1-3 when Djokovic executed a peach of a volley.

Never seen that before: It finally happened: The server challenging his own serve called good after the returner smacks a quick winner. Nadal did it as he served to stay in the set, and Djokovic was ticked. However, the serve was fine, so the return stood.

Turning point: Nadal saved three set points in two different games to pull within 4-5. Momentum shift, right? Wrong. Nadal squandered a 40-15 advantage and double-faulted to cap the set. Very, very costly.

Why the alteration? Aggressive in the first set and starting the second, Nadal gradually got pinned back. It was the pattern we witnessed last year in their tussles. The sting on both wings dissipated.

Sending a message: Djokovic unleashed a mighty fist pump as he crossed paths with Nadal when they walked to their chairs tied at a set apiece. Nadal took note.

Set 3: Djokovic 6-2, 45 minutes

Maria, Maria: Good stuff from chair umpire Pascal Maria. Instead of suddenly issuing a warning for taking too much time between points -- to both men -- he quietly tells them to keep things moving.

Wobble, wobble: Reverting to defense, Nadal was gradually being worn down. Djokovic, at one stage, won eight straight points. Nadal continued to sit well behind the baseline when receiving serve on the deuce side, and Djokovic took advantage of the angle.

No allergies: The allergies seemed to clear up, because Djokovic was ultra fresh. "Physically Novak looks as good as he's looked all tournament," Channel 7 analyst Lleyton Hewitt says.

Dominant Nole: Djokovic flourished on serve, dropping a mere two points. Nadal, who compiled 15 winners in the first set, totalled 11 in the second and third.

Set 4: Nadal 7-6, 88 minutes

Back to the plan: By the second game of the set, Nadal already had as many winners as in the third set (two). Willing himself on in the third set to move up in the court, Nadal finally started doing it again. If he was going out, better to do so swinging.

That's why he's No. 1: "This returning is insane," Hewitt says after Djokovic repels a good Nadal serve with a shot that clips the baseline to start the eighth game.

What a game! Here was Djokovic's chance to win it in four. At 4-3, he held three consecutive break points. But Nadal showed why he's one of the best of all time, saving one with a speedy serve, another with a monster forehand and the third with a gutsy backhand down the line. 4-4. "Rafa, Rafa, Rafa," the crowd chants. Adding to the drama: Rain starts to fall and they have to use the roof. A 10-minute delay follows, absorbing Nadal's momentum.

Hold the phone: With the tiebreaker looming, Djokovic shows the first signs of physical frailty. He needs to win it in four, doesn't he? Up 5-4, he's nearly there. But Nadal authors an unbelievable pickup in the backhand corner, allowing Djokovic to err. It's the key point. On to a fifth. Nadal, unusually, falls to his knees like he's won. Not yet.

Fifth set: Djokovic 7-5, 74 minutes

Uh oh: Djokovic is struggling more physically, which is to be expected, given his semifinal. His shots have less sting, and he's moving gingerly between points. But he uncorks a couple of fine serves to hold for 2-2. How much longer can he hold on?

The break: It was coming. At 30-all in the sixth game, Nadal didn't try to be fancy. He kept putting balls back in play. A fatigued Djokovic sent an inside-out forehand wide and then overcorked another forehand to trail 4-2. The end is near.

Unbelievable: Or is the end near? Nope. What a miss by Nadal at 30-15. He puts in the yards to get to a short ball with Djokovic helpless at the net but sends his backhand wide. 30-all. Guess what? He's broken. Back on serve. That backhand miscue will haunt Nadal.

Unbelievable, Part II: They've played more than five hours -- and still have the legs to embark on a 32-shot rally. It goes Nadal's way -- and Djokovic crumples to the court, letting his racket go. He has to get up, and does.

Remember Wimbledon '08? Nadal waited until deep in the fifth set to serve and volley against Federer. Staring at a break point at 4-4, in came Nadal again for the first time -- with success. Djokovic, though, had found a second wind.

Decisive break? A rejuvenated Djokovic, with the sting back in his strokes, is the one who administers a massive blow. Nadal pushes a shot into the net and it's 6-5 Djokovic. There was no coming back for Nadal. Djokovic saved a break point, and the longest final in Grand Slam history was over. Djokovic made it seven in a row over Nadal.

What a show they put on. Bravo, Messieurs Djokovic and Nadal.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.