Reversal of fortune for Rafael Nadal
MELBOURNE, Australia -- When it comes to five-set final thrillers, Rafael Nadal now has been a part of two of tennis history's most epic Grand Slam battles of attrition.
In 2008, Nadal was declared the King of Wimbledon with a stunning 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 win that denied Roger Federer a sixth consecutive Wimbledon trophy. That 4-hour, 48-minute match had it all: drama, rain, two match points squandered by Nadal in the fourth set and a finish in the gloaming that just offered a sliver of light for a conclusion to be reached.
On Sunday, in a match that stretched long enough to span the course of two days at Melbourne Park, Nadal ended up on the less enviable side of an even more heroic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 five-setter. It was defending champion Novak Djokovic's destiny to win their 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open marathon, the longest recorded men's Grand Slam final. And like that Wimbledon masterpiece that Nadal carved out in 2008, this Australian Open final had it all: drama, rain, a Nadal comeback in the fourth set from 3-4, 0-40 down and then 3-5 down in the tiebreaker that ended under a closed roof well after midnight.
Some might consider the Australian Open defeat a reversal of fortune from that Wimbledon win for the Spaniard. But Nadal sees it differently.
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"A pleasure," Nadal said when asked about taking part in those two significant matches. "That means that I did a lot of things well to compete against best players in the world and winning on them, losing on them, but always have tough matches. Final 2008 Wimbledon and this one was very special.
"For me, it was a little bit more special the 2008. But I really understand that [this] was a special match, and probably a match that will be in my mind not because I lost, no, because the way that we played."
In all, Nadal is 2-2 in five-set Grand Slam final matches, taking home the title at that 2008 Wimbledon and the 2009 Australian Open (beating Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 , 3-6, 6-2), and losing this Australian Open and the 2007 Wimbledon title (falling to Federer 7-6 , 4-6, 7-6 , 2-6, 6-2).
This latest installment of the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry was a physical confrontation between two greats that seemed reminiscent of a heavyweight title fight. The encounter left former two-time Australian Open champion Jim Courier in awe: "So incredibly, unbelievably, awesome." Early in the fifth set, Courier, commentating for Channel 7 Australia, compared the encounter to Nadal's other five-set finals, including Wimbledon in 2008, saying: "For me, this is as much, if not more and better quality tennis."
It's clear that the strength and endurance of Nadal allows him to play at such a high level throughout such marathons, regardless of whether he ends up winning. No matter how many hours into it, Nadal finds a reserve to call upon to keep on chugging.
The toll of Nadal's brand of tennis, however, is undeniable. His wrapped right knee through the match was just another sign of the constant battering his body takes.
"Physically, it was the toughest match I've ever played," said Nadal, adding later on, "Something I really enjoy; I always said is good suffering. When you are with passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering, no?"
Clearly, the real question following this match wasn't whether Nadal's body took a beating, but whether he was mentally pummeled, which could potentially set him back. After all, in the bigger picture, Djokovic has now won seven straight finals against Nadal.
The good news is Nadal, a 10-time Grand Slam champion, found positives in the match. He talked pride and encouragement for his role in what will go down as one of the greatest athletic endeavors in the game. He also seemed to understand that though he never was able to pass the Djokovic test in those six finals lost last season, this time around he was right there with the guy who took away his No. 1 crown.
"I never put him in this situation during 2011, all 2011, so that's another positive thing for me," Nadal said. "I didn't have mental problems today against him. I had in 2011 all these mental problems. So that's another positive thing. [I] probably never say that many positive things after I lose."
Nadal, win or lose, needed to walk away from the match in the right frame of mind. If his postmatch mood -- and instant reflection -- on the encounter was truly indicative of how Nadal is feeling, he looks to be in the right place for the remainder of the year.
"I think we played a great tennis match," Nadal said. "I wanted to win, but I am happy about how I did. I had my chances against the best player of the world today. I played one against one.
"So very happy about the beginning of the 2012 season. That's all I can say."
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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