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Steve Flink: Djokovic Plays For History

1/29/2012 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The stupendous Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal final round contest at the Australian Open ended a short time ago. I was up at 3AM watching these two magnanimous gladiators battling ferociously across five hours and 53 minutes in the longest Grand Slam tournament final of the Open Era. The boundless energy and determination of Djokovic and Nadal was a soaring celebration of the best that sport has to offer. This showdown was an extraordinary testament to the courage and steadfastness of both competitors. They moved beyond themselves time and again, finding reserves of willpower they never knew existed, striking back at each other with almost ineffable spirit, fortitude and panache. They displayed grace under nearly unbearable duress, played with utter integrity all through a singularly debilitating confrontation, and gave us all a Grand Slam championship match that will more than stand the test of time.

It can be said without hyperbole that this was one of the greatest matches of all time, and easily among the ten best of the modern “Open Tennis” era. Although I would not place it on a par with the epic final round Wimbledon duels between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in 1980 and Nadal against Roger Federer in 2008, there is a valid comparison. In all three cases, the two best players in the world collided on a big occasion, pushed each other nearly beyond their limits, and explored the boundaries of their competitive potentials. As was the case with Borg-McEnroe and Nadal-Federer—and all authentically great and enduring tennis matches—this Djokovic-Nadal blockbuster was a showcase for a pair of astonishing athletes who reminded us all that tennis can match or perhaps surpass any other sport for drama, originality, athletic prowess, sparkle and suspense.

Djokovic was a worthy winner in the end, outlasting Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5, defeating his chief rival for the seventh time in a row, ousting the seemingly unconquerable Nadal for the third time in a row at a Grand Slam event, backing up his remarkable triumph over Andy Murray in the penultimate round to win back to back five set matches for the first time in his still evolving career. Djokovic had labored through four hours and 50 minutes of demanding and stressful tennis against Murray, but back he came with purpose and remarkable professionalism two days later to overcome Nadal in his first ever five set skirmish with the indefatigable Spaniard. Three years ago, Nadal prevailed over Fernando Verdasco in an exhausting five set, five hour and 14 minute Australian Open semifinal, winning the longest match ever played in that tournament until now. Nadal returned that year to topple Roger Federer in five long sets for the title. Back in 1980, John McEnroe halted Jimmy Connors in five sets and one day later stopped Bjorn Borg in another five set appointment to take the U.S. Open title.

Those back to back performances from Nadal and McEnroe at the end of majors were both magnificent. But the view here is that Djokovic’s feat this year in Melbourne is even more commendable. Djokovic overcame an inspired world No. 4 in Murray in one bruising backcourt battle, and then somehow defeated the sport’s long acknowledged most resilient and toughest competitor in another. In the process, the 24-year-old Serbian raised his stature as a great champion to an even loftier level. This was one of those career defining matches for Djokovic and a jarring defeat for Nadal. Nadal made a stirring comeback late in the fourth set, moved exceedingly close to victory, and was even ahead by a service break in the fifth set. He was right where he wanted to be. But ultimately, Djokovic was deservedly victorious. In a match that came down to mental toughness and poise under pressure more than anything else, Djokovic was not found wanting. In fact, he beat his greatest rival on what was not the Serbian’s best day. Djokovic bested Nadal in a physical war unlike anything either of them has ever experienced, and that was a major accomplishment. No one else could have done it.

Let’s review what happened in this stirring encounter. Nadal realized he needed to commence the match with purpose, and had to move out in front of Djokovic and make the Serbian feel the effects of his long semifinal with Murray. There was a ragged quality to Djokovic’s tennis in the opening set, which clearly Nadal needed to win more than the Serbian did. Djokovic did indeed appear to be a lot less crisp than usual, and his ground game was in some disarray. Djokovic seemed beleaguered and out of sorts during the early stages, and Nadal sensed his chance. In that first set, Nadal set a clear tone or how he was going to approach this match, smacking his inside-out forehand with relish, going for flat backhands down the line and crosscourt, taking his forehand up the line whenever the percentages favored that play. Moreover, Nadal was serving with great accuracy down the T in the deuce court, keeping his delivery unusually close to the center service line and making Djokovic stretch fully. As the match progressed, Nadal also hit some productive body serves that the Serbian was always trying to fend off.

With Djokovic serving at 2-2 in the first set, Nadal made his move, breaking his adversary in a three deuce game as Djokovic missed a routine backhand approach shot down the line at break point down. Yet the Serbian was returning better than he was serving at that stage. Nadal survived a five deuce game in holding for 4-2, but Djokovic took the next three games for a 5-4 lead. Despite his problems maintaining his edge, Nadal refused to buckle. He captured three consecutive games for the set, although it was no simple task for the Spaniard to close out the set. Serving at 6-5, he surged to 40-15, but Djokovic pounced on a second serve and drove it inside-in off the backhand for a winner. Then the Serbian drove a penetrating two-hander crosscourt to provoke an error from Nadal. Nadal garnered a third set point, and converted it with a smart body serve to the backhand that Djokovic could not handle. In 80 punishing minutes, Nadal had taken the first set.

I thought the thought of having to play at least three and possibly four more sets if he was going to halt Nadal might make Djokovic aggravated and apprehensive, but his poise and composure were evident at the start of the second set. In the 29 previous appointments between these two longtime rivals, the player who had taken the first set had been victorious no fewer than 25 times. That might have been a good omen for Nadal, but Djokovic simply cast aside his loss of the first set and elevated his game considerably. With Nadal serving at 1-2, 30-40 in the second set, Djokovic punched a low forehand volley down the line and put it neatly on the baseline for the service break. Djokovic was finding his range from the backcourt, serving Nadal wide in both the deuce and ad courts, and controlling the tempo of the match.

Nadal was down set point at 2-5 but coaxed an error from Djokovic, making a delayed approach behind a deep forehand to the backhand that caught the Serbian off guard. Nadal held on for 3-5, and then saved two more set points in the following game, one with a punishing forehand crosscourt, the other with an outright inside-out forehand winner.  Djokovic served his first double fault of the match to drop his serve, and the Spaniard was back in that set with a chance. Nadal served at 4-5, 40-30, one point away from knotting the set. But Djokovic released one of his effortless, stinging inside-out forehands to draw an error from Nadal. At deuce, Djokovic’s return of serve sat up, allowing Nadal an opportunity to unleash one of his patented point concluding forehands. He should have gone inside-out with that shot but instead sent it crosscourt, with insufficient depth. Djokovic easily drove a two-handed passing shot down the line for a winner. With Djokovic applying increasing pressure on his second serve returns, Nadal knew he needed to get good depth at set point down. But he went for too much, double faulting long, allowing a relieved and exhilarated Djokovic back to one set all.

That aborted Nadal comeback took the wind right out of the sails of the No. 2 player in the world. With the Spaniard serving at 1-2 and down break point, he lost a high quality 21 stroke exchange from the baseline, pulling a forehand wide by inches. Djokovic stormed to 3-1, and held at love for 4-1 with three service winners and a forehand winner. After Nadal held on for 2-4, Djokovic collected no less than eight points in a row to seal the set, taking it 6-2. At 4-2, 40-0, Djokovic produced a clean winning backhand winner down the line. Similarly, with Nadal serving down triple set point down in the following game, Djokovic came through with a devastatingly potent and brilliant forehand winner up the line, as if to underline his supremacy. He was accelerating, building confidence, leaving Nadal dazed and deflated. Djokovic had taken 16 of 18 points on serve in the third set, and he was pounding Nadal into submission at this stage.

And yet, Nadal is Nadal, and there is no one quite like him in the modern world of tennis. He refused to surrender, no matter how badly Djokovic was outplaying him. Nadal simply resolved to raise his intensity and take his game up to a higher sustained level. He was urging himself on with shouts of self-encouragement, trying to impose his will. Gradually, his serve improved, as did his outlook. Nadal kept pummeling away off the forehand, taking calculated risks off the backhand, searching for any minor flaw he might find in Djokovic. But Djokovic was still ceding no ground. With Nadal serving at 3-4 in the fourth set, Djokovic surged to a 0-40 lead with a sparkling two-handed backhand winner down the line, an unanswerable forehand that caused Nadal to miss off the backhand, and a dazzling forehand winner up the line. Here was Djokovic at triple break point, right on the verge of serving for the match.

An obstinate Nadal would have none of it. He came at Djokovic with everything he had. An inside-out forehand winner from the Spaniard brought him back to 15-40, followed by a service winner wide to the forehand for 30-40, followed by a gutsy backhand up the line behind Djokovic that landed for a winner. An ace down the T in the deuce court gave Nadal game point, and an unstoppable first serve was enough to hold. That remarkably assertive five point sequence lifted Nadal back to 4-4.

By now, this compelling skirmish was three hours and 59 minutes old, and Nadal’s clutch stand had kept him very much alive. But rain had started falling, forcing a ten minute delay for the players while the roof was closing over Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic resumed his ground stroke command, holding at love with a spectacular forehand winner down the line. Nadal responded with a comfortable hold of his own, and both players held again to set up a tie-break. In that critical sequence, Nadal established a mini-break lead at 3-2, but Djokovic retaliated boldly, taking the next three points. The world No. 1 was now only two points away from a four set triumph, serving with a 5-3 lead in the tie-break. He took a slight risk, going for a difficult forehand down the line winner, missing it wide.

Nadal pounced. Forced into a very defensive position on his backhand, Nadal went with a short backhand slice, sending it low down the line. Djokovic tried to respond with an inside-out forehand, but could not make the shot. It was 5-5. Nadal wisely served wide to the Djokovic forehand in the deuce court, provoking an errant return wide down the line. Now serving at 5-6 and set point down, Djokovic lost his fourth crucial point in a row, drilling a forehand inside-in narrowly wide. Set to Nadal, 7-6, seven points to five in the tie-break. The buoyant Spaniard was reignited, while Djokovic realized he had woken a sleeping giant of a competitor.

Nadal clearly believed he was going to win. He had raised his game decidedly in the latter stages of the fourth set, and at the end of the tie-break. He was getting on top of more of the rallies. And Djokovic was unmistakably slowing down, with his legs weakening significantly, and his disposition altered in a negative way. Nadal opened the fifth set by holding at 30 with an ace up the T at 40-30. Djokovic held easily himself, but then Nadal held at love in the third game with four consecutive first serves finding their mark. As a plainly sagging Djokovic served at 1-2, 40-30, the match hit the five hour mark. He held on, but Nadal was brimming with authority and confidence, his shots off both sides gaining sting, his capacity to control rallies deeply enhanced, his inner belief readily apparent.

In the fifth game, Nadal held at love for 3-2, and by then Djokovic’s legs were getting increasingly wobbly. He was stretching them out between points, trying to sustain a positive attitude. But he was clearly weakening. Serving at 2-3, 30-40, Djokovic could not move with the alacrity he had shown earlier. Nadal unleashed a scorching forehand up the line, and a wavering Djokovic drove a forehand crosscourt long. Nadal—two points away from a four set loss—had moved within two games of a thrilling five set victory. At 4-2, 30-15, he chased down a forehand drop volley from Djokovic. The court was open. Nadal directed his backhand passing shot down the line. But he did not give himself enough margin for error, sending his shot wide.

Instead of taking a confidence building 4-2, 40-15 lead, Nadal was locked at 30-30 in that pivotal seventh game. Djokovic then got great depth on his two-hander crosscourt, forcing Nadal into an error. With Nadal serving at 30-40, Djokovic backed him up with a return on the baseline, and the Spaniard could not deal with it. In the space of two minutes, a match that seemed destined to go Nadal’s way had changed complexion. Somehow, Djokovic reclaimed much of his old authority and mobility. After his timely and unexpected break back to 3-4, the Serbian held easily at 15 for 4-4. Djokovic was a resurgent figure, and Nadal’s seemingly inexorable march to a comeback victory was now in doubt.

But the revitalized Spaniard still dictated his share of rallies, and his standards were much higher than anything he had displayed from the baseline for three-and-a-half sets. At 4-4 in that stirring fifth set, the two players produced the most spectacular tennis of the match. They opened up that game with a high octane, 32 stoke exchange, with both men sedulously covering the entire court. Nadal won that rally by throwing in a backhand slice down the line to provoke a two-hander long from Djokovic, who fell onto his back in exhaustion and wry amusement. The crowd rose to its feet to shower both players with a richly deserved standing ovation. Nadal went to 40-30, but Djokovic caught him in his tracks with an inside-out forehand return winner for deuce. The Serbian made it to break point, but Nadal bailed himself out with an excellent sliced serve wide that was unmanageable for Djokovic. Nadal gamely held on for 5-4 after two deuces, standing four points from a heroic triumph.

And yet, serving to stay in the match during the tenth game of that gripping final set, Djokovic revealed no insecurity. He held at 15 to reach 5-5, with his only blemish a double fault at 40-0. At 5-5, 30-30, Nadal defended with utter resolve, giving Djokovic every conceivable chance to make a mistake. Djokovic refused the invitation, forcing Nadal into a running forehand error into the net. Nadal saved the break point with a gutsy flat backhand crosscourt that Djokovic could not answer, but the Serbian went right back to work and garnered another break point. Nadal was then in a neutral position in the rally when he inexplicably went for a sliced backhand down the line, sending that meek shot into the net. Djokovic had regained the upper hand, and was serving for the match.

The Serbian charged to 30-0, two points from his destination. But Nadal had another burst of inspiration, taking three points in a row to reach break point. Yet Djokovic was sturdy when he needed to be, drilling a backhand crosscourt to force Nadal into a running forehand wide. Nadal then missed a backhand off the net cord, and Djokovic arrived at match point. His first serve down the T elicited a weak return, and the world No. 1 was ready for one of his favorite shots, going inside-out off the forehand for a match concluding winner. Djokovic had prevailed in five crackling sets as only a great champion could, with gumption and resoluteness, with a sureness of purpose and a clear sense of who he is and what he is becoming.

Only Rod Laver—who was there in Melbourne to commemorate his first Grand Slam in 1962 and to witness the tournament and shake Nadal’s and Djokovic’s hands after their classic confrontation during the presentation ceremony—has won four majors in a row among the men in the Open Era. That happened when he captured his second Grand Slam in 1969. Since then, only Pete Sampras (in 1993-94), Roger Federer (twice) and Nadal (in 2010) had secured three Grand Slam championships in a row. Djokovic has thus joined an elite cast of estimable individuals. He will be going for his fourth straight major at Roland Garros, which is the only Grand Slam title to elude him during his exemplary career. Djokovic now owns three Australian Open crowns along with the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles of 2011. The feeling grows that he will win about ten majors before he puts the racket down, and perhaps more.

The man who once was such an unstable competitor on the premier stages of the world has transformed himself and his game comprehensively. Meanwhile, he has beaten Nadal seven times in a row, including the last three “Big Four” finals. Nadal’s tenuous lead in their rivalry is down to 16-14. No two men had ever met in three consecutive major finals across the Open Era, and now Nadal has become the first man ever to lose in the finals of three Grand Slam events in a row during the same span. The Spaniard remains clearly above the rest of the pack in his profession, but it is a large credit to Novak Djokovic that he has stopped his formidable rival ceaselessly ever since they met at Indian Wells last March.

This latest Djokovic triumph over Nadal will live irrevocably in eye of his mind. Remember that Nadal has long been the game’s ultimate five set player. This was only his fourth defeat in nineteen five set contests over the course of a stellar career. Djokovic keeps piling up the credits, keeps recording hard fought victories, keeps demonstrating that he is a great tennis champion at the height of his powers. His stock is gaining value with every passing day, and the guess here is that Djokovic will not wander far from the top of his talent or stray from his wide range of big ambitions for a very long while.