Djokovic now on the brink of history
As the fourth set melted into the fifth and the fifth hour approached an unfathomable sixth, this tennis match seemed to pass into the surreal: Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, exhausted but transcendent in their Australian Open final that ended early Monday morning, flashing shots in an endless loop.
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When the last ball shot dropped -- a staggering 5 hours and 53 minutes after it started -- Djokovic watched his savage forehand disappear into the shadows, fell to his back and closed his eyes. He was a winner, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5, in the longest Grand Slam final in the 44 years of the Open era.
For context, consider that the previous longest final -- the 1988 U.S. Open, where Mats Wilander defeated Ivan Lendl in five sets -- was 59 minutes shorter.
"Good morning," Nadal said when he addressed the crowd after the match had ended at 1:37 a.m. local time. "Congratulations to Novak and his team. They are doing something fantastic."
Indeed, they are. This year, the Australian Open celebrated the 50th anniversary of Rod Laver's first Grand Slam. Appropriately, Djokovic now finds himself one major from a spectacular quadruple of his own. If he can win at Roland Garros in June -- it came very close to happening last year -- he will hold all four Grand Slam singles titles.
The No-Djoke Slam.
For those thinking that 2011 was an overheated mirage, think again. In his past two matches -- in a span of only three days -- Djokovic spent nearly 11 hours on the court. He did it in Rod Laver Arena with the great man himself watching and, quite often, applauding. With last year's victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and now in possession of the first major of 2012 (Laver handed him the sterling trophy), the world's No. 1 player looks virtually unbeatable.
"Rafa, you are one of the best players ever," Djokovic said to the man he has beaten seven straight times. "We made history tonight."
How impressive is this run for Djokovic? Consider the list of men who have won at least three consecutive Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era: Laver (four in 1969), Pete Sampras (three, 1993-94), Roger Federer (three, in both 2005-06 and 2006-07) and Nadal (three, 2010). No slackers in that group.
"Even though I lost," Nadal said, "it was something really, really special for me."
Nadal always has been a creature of habit, sometimes operating just this side of obsessive compulsion. When you are born a Spanish clay-court tennis player, you are taught to give ground and put the ball in play.
The genius of Rafa is that he mastered this retreat-and-grind style of play; he won four titles at Roland Garros by age 22, but he wanted more. Going against his instincts and upbringing, he learned to step into the baseline and become aggressive. His game evolved, and he won major championships on the grass at Wimbledon and the hard courts in Melbourne and New York.
And then last year, for the first time, he ran into someone who was simply better. Djokovic won all six of their matches, and Rafa -- who admitted Djokovic had penetrated the airspace between his ears -- was forced to retreat back home to Mallorca and "find solutions."
Djokovic, based on his success against Rafa last year, would have been the prohibitive favorite, except that he had 24 hours fewer to recover from a nearly five-hour match against Andy Murray. This was the X factor in this match. Could Nadal, who had two days to recover from a less strenuous semifinal win over Federer, exploit that advantage?
In the early going, some modest answers were apparent. Nadal hit bigger serves, including some difficult offerings to the body, shortened points by going for his forehand and even unveiled a lovely, aggressive slice that opened up the court.
Not surprisingly, Djokovic came out looking a little crusty around the edges. The first set required 80 minutes -- two minutes shorter than the women's final.
Last year, Djokovic beat Nadal in the final at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Down two match points in the semifinals in New York, Djokovic stunned Federer with a massive service return. Down 15-40 at 5-all in the fifth set of his Australian Open semifinal against Andy Murray, Djokovic dared to hit the line with a searing forehand. Those two strokes captured his newly forged confidence.
We can now add a third: Djokovic, out of position with Nadal serving at 4-5 and deuce in the second set, guessed right and moved to his left before Nadal even hit the ball. Djokovic blasted a backhand winner so powerful that Rafa's response was to double fault on the next point. Set and, it appeared, match to Djokovic.
But Rafa somehow summoned a second life. Serving at 3-4 in the fourth set, he managed to save three break points at love-40 and level the set before rain splashed through the open roof and caused an awkward 10-minute delay. Nadal rode that momentum through the tiebreaker and into the fifth set.
Serving for the match at 6-5, Djokovic stroked a big serve down the middle, then ripped a cross-court forehand winner. A minute later, he ripped off his shirt and displayed his hard-won abs. His feat was an impressive display of courage.
This was the third consecutive Grand Slam final featuring these two athletes -- a record that extends across the Open era. Even the great rivalry of Federer-Nadal never produced a triple-triple. Based on the state of the game, we might see six more combined finals appearances between them this year.
After the American hard-court swing in March, through Indian Wells and Miami, the clay-court season will begin. It culminates in Paris, where Djokovic lost his last Grand Slam match, to Federer in the semifinals. Certainly, he has the capacity to win a fourth straight major -- even against Nadal, who has won six of the past seven titles at Roland Garros.
Just as Nadal began taking majors directly from Federer in championship finals, Djokovic is doing the same to Nadal. The Spaniard has 10 all told, but Djokovic's count, propelled by his third Australian Open crown, moves to five -- and counting.
This was the fourth consecutive major final for Nadal, but after winning at Roland Garros a year ago, he became the first man in the Open era to lose three consecutive finals. That might keep him up nights as he trains and attempts to heal his body in February.
When it was over, the two men looked grim and drawn. They had nothing left to give. Although tournament organizers droned on and on before the trophy presentations, they stretched to ward off cramps, and Nadal leaned on the net for support. Eventually, blessedly, two chairs were produced and the combatants sat down side by side, sipping water.
They looked like weary boxers preparing for the last round.
"Unfortunately, there couldn't be two winners tonight," Djokovic said later.
On this occasion, he was wrong.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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