Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal: Why Aussie Open Final Is Greatest Match Ever

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2012

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia hugs Raphael Nadal of Spain after his men's final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day fourteen of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal redefined men’s tennis with their grueling masterpiece at the 2012 Australian Open Final. Weeks later, tennis fans are still sorting out its ramifications.

Did Djokovic’s invincible shot-making machine assimilate another psychological weapon to bury his competition, or were there suddenly cracks in his armor?

Will Nadal’s excruciating loss restore his Grand Slam confidence, or did it irreparably destroy his will?

Classic matches appear frequently enough and modern media hype is quick to pronounce greatness, but men’s tennis has climbed to new competitive heights as never before. Djokovic vs. Nadal is the dawn of a new era in tennis, and its rivalry has created a new standard of pure intensity.

Djokovic Changes His Shirt

Djokovic’s first test comes only 16 minutes into the match. At 2-2 and facing break point, he sails a loose forehand inches past Nadal’s baseline. He sullenly marches to his chair for the changeover, pulls off his white shirt and tosses it next to his chair. Finally, he flings his racket on the ground. The crowd murmurs and he stares defiantly at the court.

Maybe it isn’t a symbolic change, but Djokovic comes back to the court with a fresh black shirt and greater composure. Two years ago he might have unraveled. Now he shrugs off adversity and channels it into his next point. He’s not going to throw away his talent and replay Marat Safin’s career.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia crouches over in his men's final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day fourteen of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mar
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

We’re witnessing a historic Grand Slam streak from a champion whose ceiling seems to keep rising. Do we compare him to Ivan Lendl? Pete Sampras? Roger Federer? Who will slow him down? The Greatest Match must have a legendary player who is peaking. Check.

Nadal Saves His Career

By the end of the first set, Nadal is spraying perspiration with each ferocious swing. His lime-green shirt and floppy hair flutter as if he were being filmed in a wind tunnel for a Gatorade commercial. His wrist seems bionic as he repeatedly whips it above his head to generate his insane forehand spins.

Nadal is facing a crisis of confidence. He’s only 25 years old and already holds 10 Grand Slam titles, but faces the very real question of whether or not he will ever win another. He can bludgeon his forehand to patient victories against other opponents, but Djokovic possessed a backhand that counters with even deeper and more precise power. Nadal knows he must create doubt in his opponent and belief for himself.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates winning a game in his men's final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day fourteen of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The stakes for a great match have never been higher. Two great champions in their peak years: Nadal, desperately trying to reassert his dominance, and Djokovic, looking to bury Nadal and own all future matches. Has there ever been another Grand Slam match with so much riding on the first set?

Nadal’s first set win, it turns out, may have saved his career. 

Djokovic or the Terminator?

Almost four hours into the match and it’s almost over. Djokovic is getting stronger after ripping off the last two sets.  He is forcing Nadal to slice defensive backhand shots and he pounces on anything short. He is in the zone with his strange brew of crazed focus. His eyes are bigger and he sometimes clenches his fist and talks to it, as if to prove he can match Nadal’s intensity.

Leading 4-3 in the fourth set and 0-15 on Nadal’s serve, Djokovic scrambles deep to his ad court, picks out a sure Nadal forehand winner, slices it up the line and follows up with a vicious forehand behind Nadal’s handcuffed feet. Love-30.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates a point in his men's final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain during day fourteen of the 2012 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo b
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Djokovic follows this up with an in-and-out forehand that blows Nadal off the court. He is at 0-40 and one point away from serving out the match. 

Nadal Rises from the Grave

At this point, few fans would have given Nadal a chance to extend the match another two hours. The first set proves to be a critical lifeline, but would it have been better to have been swept away instead of eventually losing the most agonizing of all matches? Would Lleyton Hewitt feel better having lost this match, or would he have preferred the beating he took from Roger Federer at the 2004 U.S. Open Final (6-0, 7-6, 6-0)?

Nadal nearly breaks the sound barrier with two of the hardest hit forehands of his career. It’s hard to tell which is more amazing: Nadal keeping the ball in play or hitting a second scorcher because of Djokovic’s amazing retrieval.

Great matches feature the greatest players hitting the most improbable shots. It’s a surreal glance at a moment when one great champion can only be pushed by another champion's reply. Borg vs. McEnroe in 1980 is the only Final that can rival this fourth set. Federer vs. Nadal at 2007 and 2008 Wimbledon featured these rare moments. That’s about it.

Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Nadal sends delirium through Rod Laver Arena by winning the next two points and eventually holding serve to level the match at 4-4. It was fitting that at this moment the rain came and stopped play. While the roof was closing, we could savor Nadal’s miraculous return.

Have you ever been awake at 4:45 am PST to watch any kind of sporting event, in the middle of six hours? There were no other sporting events, phone calls or distractions. Any American who didn’t watch tennis was fast asleep. We paid a devoted price to watch this match, and it added to its surreal atmosphere. To call this match a marathon is to demean the match. A marathon can be run in just a few minutes longer than two hours.

Nadal won the tiebreaker 7-5, and you could feel pandemonium reverberate all the way to Spain, in the middle of their afternoon siesta. 

A New Era in Tennis

Now it’s Rafael Nadal who controls the match. His match strategy has never changed: “If you’re going to beat me, pack a lunch, hombre.” All of a sudden Nadal’s ball is exploding off the court. He’s getting stronger, hitting harder. It’s the seventh game and Patrick McEnroe says “Nadal is hitting the ball crisper now.”

Nadal breaks Djokovic for a 4-3 lead.

Then at 30-15, and Djokovic pulled to the side of the court, Nadal runs up to midcourt to finish off a floater. Somehow his running backhand misses the court. It proves lethal.

The Djoker rallies, and now he is finding a new reserve of energy. He’s hitting harder and is upright and more alert. The normally reserved Vlade Divac, in Djokovic’s box, is on his feet, trying to see past Jelena Ristic who has appeared on camera at least one hundred times. It’s all part of the scenery at the Greatest Match, and must be documented.

There have been other famous matches which tested the stamina and fitness of tennis combatants—Pete Sampras fighting off illness to defeat Alex Corretja in 1996; and Andre Agassi battling age and a bad back to overcome a cramping Marcos Baghdatis at the 2006 U.S. Open. But these were not the final, and they came at the expense of good players, not legends.

Has there ever been a classic Grand Slam Final that tested its warriors to this level? McEnroe and Borg played four hours of short points in 1980, and certainly did not have the level of fitness of today’s tennis players. What else is comparable?

There’s a duel in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in which Arthur’s knight Sir Gawain is given an enchantment to battle the rogue champion Sir Launcelot. Gawain keeps gaining strength but can’t finish off Launcelot. Finally, his enchantment weakens and Launcelot outlasts the one who was blessed with stamina.

This is what happened to Nadal. Like Gawain, he had been gaining strength, only to see his rival somehow outlast him. Nadal can only look in the mirror and see the face of his rival.

Djokovic’s maniacal celebration can be forgiven. He had to play at the intensity of AC/DC to win a six-hour battle-of-the-bands against Led Zeppelin. He had lost his grip on the match in the fourth set and had come back in the last of the fifth to defeat his rival on his terms.

This era of Federer and Nadal has helped shape Djokovic into a greater champion. He has seen greatness, paid homage to its price and honed his adrenaline and heart into fulfilling his dream. He is battle-tested and ready for a historic chance at holding all four Grand Slam titles. His greatest rival knows he will need to play even better.

So, we are already looking ahead.

Great matches do this.

But it will be hard to wait three more months after witnessing the kind of match we may never see again.


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