Length of Aussie final didn't add up
All over the world, there were bleary eyes belonging to those who stayed up to watch the epic battle between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for the Australian Open title. And epic it certainly was, with grueling, glorious rallies of skill and sinews that pushed both their own limits and those of the sport. For five sets, 369 points and 5 hours, 53 minutes, it was one unforgettable match, and yet another stirring chapter in this legendary era of tennis.
The win cemented Djokovic's status as a giant of the game and the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry as one for the ages. The match joined the ranks of great Grand Slam finals like Nadal and Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2008 and Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1980.
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It was also the longest Grand Slam final in history, almost an hour longer than the previous 4-hour, 54-minute record set by Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl at the 1988 U.S. Open. It was also the longest-ever Australian Open match -- longer than both the official record of 5 hours, 14 minutes set in the 2009 semifinal by Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, and the real record of about five and a half hours set by Gilles Muller and Feliciano Lopez in the first round that year (a scoreboard malfunction that affected several matches that day resulted in the match time being recorded as 4 hours, 22 minutes).
But just as the numbers don't do justice to the drama of the contest and the quality of certain stages of Sunday's match, they don't quite tell the full story about its length, either.
It's well known that Nadal and Djokovic are two of the slowest players on tour in terms of the amount of time they take between points. Early in the match, ESPN's broadcast flashed a statistic showing Nadal's average time between points to be 31 seconds and Djokovic's to be 35 secords -- both well over the 20 seconds players are allotted at Grand Slam events. Around the end of the second set, when the umpire cautioned both players against taking too much time, the numbers were down slightly, showing Nadal at 30 seconds between points and Djokovic at 33 seconds. They likely increased once again during the later stages of the match, given that both players were understandably exhausted.
Even using the conservative estimate of 30 seconds and 33 seconds, respectively, that still adds considerably to the length of the match. With Djokovic playing 166 points on his serve, the Serb took 36 more minutes than he would have if sticking to the rules. Nadal, who played 203 points on his serve, took an extra 34 minutes. That adds up to 70 minutes, which would have put the match time at 4 hours, 43 minutes -- potentially shorter than the Wilander-Lendl U.S. Open final, the Nadal-Federer 2008 Wimbledon final (4 hours, 48 minutes) and even Djokovic's win over Andy Murray in the semifinals (4 hours, 50 minutes). And all without counting the long gaps the two also tend to take between first and second serves, which stretched the contest even further.
That's strictly a back-of-the-envelope calculation, using a mid-match average and not taking into account external factors like crowd noise or waiting for balls, which would affect any player. And while walking around, toweling off, adjusting and ball-bouncing felt excessive after a service winner or a short point, there were also a lot of long rallies where the extra time seemed jusitfied. But all in all, it seems safe to say the match would likely have come in closer to the five-hour mark than the six-hour mark if Nadal and Djokovic were a little more inclined to move things along. Still long, and still a potential record-breaker, but not completely out of line with other five-set finals.
Just one player playing quicker would have had an impact. It's been estimated that Federer takes about 15 seconds between points. So taking that as a difference of about 18 seconds from Djokovic, if Federer had been on the other side of the net from Nadal, not only would the match have been quite different, but the same scoreline might have taken about 50 minutes fewer.
It is no surprise that Nadal and Djokovic also hold the record for the longest three-set match played on the ATP Tour (4 hours, 3 minutes) in the 2009 Madrid semifinals.
The growing pauses have prompted some to argue for a shotclock, but it would create a rigidity which doesn't quite suit tennis. Just like a match ebbs and flows, the appropriate time between points changes depending on the scoreline and the length of the previous point.
In the end, time can be relative. Djokovic and Nadal didn't come anywhere close to matching the 11 hours, 5 minutes John Isner and Nicolas Mahut took in their record bout at Wimbledon in 2010, but they might have expended just as much energy.
Add to that their grueling semifinals, particularly for Djokovic -- the Serb played longer and had one fewer day to recover -- and, on top of all its other significance, this was truly one of the great marathon efforts. One sight said it all: The pair barely able to stand during the trophy ceremony, hunched over almost identically with their hands on their knees. It wasn't the time they spent out there; it was the effort they put into it.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.