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Steve Flink: 2012 Australian Open Retrospective

2/1/2012 4:00:00 PM

Untitled Document

by Steve Flink

This was decidedly more than just another extraordinary tennis match, more than we could ever have envisioned, more than the two supreme gladiators themselves could have bargained for. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal gave us a stirring, spectacular and gripping heavyweight championship fight contested on a tennis court. They pierced each other with every punch in their arsenals, knocked each other down to the canvas time and again, somehow kept getting back up, and came at each other with unbridled fury until both competitors found themselves often on the edge of utter exhaustion. They withstood pain mortal men could and would not have found tolerable. For five hours and fifty three minutes, across five pendulum swinging sets, through an impossibly long evening and on into the next morning, Djokovic and Nadal were nothing short of heroic in their full-blooded pursuit of the Australian Open crown.

In the end, Djokovic prevailed in this riveting skirmish, coming through gallantly to oust Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in the longest Grand Slam final ever played. Djokovic achieved an astounding seventh consecutive head-to-head triumph over his revered rival. It was the first time in the Open Era—which commenced in 1968—that two men had clashed in three consecutive Grand Slam tournament finals, and a noble Nadal became the first man in the modern era to fall in three major finals in a row. Djokovic joined some elite company by capturing his third major in a row. In the Open Era, only Rod Laver—who won his second Grand Slam in 1969 and was present to witness the Serbian record this landmark victory in Melbourne—Pete Sampras (1993-94), Roger Federer (twice in the 2005-2007 span), and Nadal (2010) had realized that considerable feat.

Only once in 134 previous career contests at the majors had Nadal been beaten after winning the opening set. That was in 2007 at the U.S. Open, when Nadal bowed out against David Ferrer at the U.S. Open. The Spaniard knew he had to find a way to win the first set of his duel with Djokovic in Melbourne. After suffering six losses in a row to his primary rival and going two sets down in the last two major finals before losing in four sets, Nadal could not afford to fall behind against such a formidable front runner. He had to stake his claim early, let his presence be known, create doubt in the mind of his adversary. Moreover, Djokovic had been pushed to the absolute hilt by Andy Murray in a debilitating five set semifinal.

Nadal’s inside-out forehand was magnificent in the early stages. He went after that shot uncompromisingly, stepping around his backhand whenever possible, driving the forehand without any hint of trepidation. This was crucial. Nadal can’t rely any longer on his trademark crosscourt forehand against Djokovic because the Serbian’s two-handed backhand is simply too good. He has virtually taken that shot away from the Spaniard. Meanwhile, Nadal also went after his backhand, flattening it out frequently, drilling it with a lot of pace both crosscourt and down the line. Even so, Djokovic’s crosscourt forehand—hit with aggressive topspin, curling away from Nadal’s backhand near the sideline—is a burdensome problem for the world No. 2.

Be that as it may, Nadal mixed up his serve adroitly, and his first serve down the T in the deuce court was particularly sharp. He kept it much closer to the center service line than usual. Nadal also went for some effective body serves. And yet, Djokovic returns better than anyone in tennis, and he still came up with some sparkling returns despite some ragged play during the rallies.

Nadal went ahead 4-2, dropped the next three games, but recouped to collect three games in a row to garner the crucial opening set. And yet, despite his disillusionment with losing that set, Djokovic made Nadal work exceedingly hard to close it out. Nadal had a 40-15 lead at 6-5 but Djokovic stung him twice with an inside-in backhand return winner off a second serve, followed by a penetrating two-hander crosscourt that was too much for the Spaniard to handle. Nadal sealed the set on his third set point but it took him 80 punishing minutes to realize that goal.

In 25 of the previous 29 previous showdowns between these two great players, the winner of the first set had gone on to victory. But Djokovic has made a habit of breaking down barriers against his old rival over the last year. He had never defeated Nadal in a final prior to 2011, but did it six times in 2011, winning four of those encounters at Masters 1000 level events, prevailing in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He had never beaten Nadal on clay before ousting the left-hander twice on the dirt last year. And before the start of 2011, Djokovic had never come from a set down to defeat Nadal. But twice in 2011, he turned the tables on Nadal after dropping the first set, at Indian Wells and Miami.

After displaying some frustration during the first set in Melbourne, Djokovic slowly and surely found his range in the second and left his anxiety behind him. He charged to a 5-2 second set lead. Nadal was down set point on his serve in the eighth game but he got something extra on his forehand, made a delayed move into the net, and coaxed an error from the Serbian off his backhand. Nadal held on. When Djokovic served for the second set, the Serbian advanced to 40-15, double set point. Nadal retaliated forcefully once more, stepping up the pace of his crosscourt forehand to force an error from Djokovic, then releasing an outright winner off the forehand. Djokovic lost that game with a double fault, and Nadal found himself with a chance to bring the set back to 5-5.

The Spaniard moved to 40-30 in the critical tenth game of that second set, but Djokovic was uninhibited, sending an inside-out forehand to Nadal’s forehand that was too good. At deuce, Djokovic’s return landed short, sitting up for Nadal to devour. But the Spaniard unwisely elected to go crosscourt instead of inside-out. Djokovic anticipated beautifully, driving a backhand pass up the line for a winner. At break point down, Nadal recognized that Djokovic was looking to step in and unleash another scorching return. The Spaniard went for too much, double faulting long. It was one set all, and a revitalized Djokovic was back in a positive frame of mind.

Djokovic pounded Nadal into submission across the third set, breaking for 3-1 by gaining the upper hand in a 21 stroke baseline exchange. He held at love for 4-1. Nadal managed to hold in the following game, but Djokovic captured eight points in a row to take the set commandingly, 6-2. At 4-2, 40-0, Djokovic drove a clean winner down the line off the backhand. With Nadal serving at triple set point down in the following game, Djokovic blasted a devastatingly potent and brilliant forehand winner down the line, as if to underline his supremacy. He took 16 of 18 service points in that set, and thoroughly outclassed Nadal with his play. This was Djokovic essentially at his zenith.

Nadal was down two sets to one, and Djokovic was going strong. A comeback from the Spaniard did not seem likely. But Nadal is ever indefatigable, and he was not going to surrender. And yet, Nadal served at 3-4, 0-40 in the fourth set, down triple break point, in danger of losing the match in very short order. Here he revealed his forthrightness and total integrity as a competitor.  An inside-out forehand winner took Nadal back to 15-40, and a service winner wide to the forehand made it 30-40. Then Nadal produced a gutsy backhand up the line behind Djokovic. That shot landed safely in the corner for a winner. It was deuce. Nadal then aced Djokovic down the T in the deuce court, and followed with an unstoppable first serve. That remarkably assertive five point sequence lifted a surging Nadal back to 5-5.

But rain halted play after three hours and 59 absorbing minutes. The roof was closed over Rod Laver Arena, but a ten minute delay ensued. The set went to a tie-break, and Djokovic moved ahead 5-3, two points away from a four set triumph. He went for a forehand winner down the line, but just missed it wide. Serving at 4-5, Nadal was forced to defend off his backhand, but cleverly went with a short slice down the line. Djokovic stepped around but missed an inside-out forehand. It was 5-5. Nadal surprised Djokovic with a first serve out wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and provoked an errant return wide. It was set point for the Spaniard, with Djokovic serving. A buoyant Spaniard had been reignited, and Djokovic realized he had woken a sleeping giant of a competitor. Djokovic missed a forehand inside-in and just like that it was two sets all. Nadal had collected four crucial points in a row to dramatically reverse the outcome of the tie-break.

An exhilarated Nadal was sprawled out on the court, on his back, delirious about giving himself another chance to win. He was gaining the upper hand in the rallies, hitting the ball harder, getting on top in many of the rallies. Meanwhile, Djokovic’s legs were turning to jelly and weakening significantly. On his way to 3-2 in the fifth set, Nadal conceded only two points in three service games. In the sixth game, Nadal stood at break point. He took his forehand forcefully up the line and Djokovic did not have any spring in his step, missing the difficult running forehand. The Spaniard was up 4-2.

Nadal was surging, energetic, brimming with confidence, overflowing with intensity. He moved to 30-15 in the seventh game. Here the Spaniard was plainly looking for something approximating a knockout blow. Djokovic approached the net, and played a forehand angled drop volley crosscourt that Nadal easily anticipated. The Spaniard came forward and had a wide open space to go down the line for a winning passing shot. Djokovic was not going to recover or be able to make a sprightly move to that side. But Nadal played his shot too fine, rolling his two-hander wide. He challenged the call, as if to verify for himself that he had actually missed a shot he would make nine times out of ten. The replay confirmed that he had indeed made the mistake.

Rather than holding a comfortable 40-15 lead in that pivotal 4-2 game, Nadal was locked at 30-30. Djokovic seemed to almost instantly get his legs back and his game fell neatly into place. He drove a two-hander deep crosscourt that Nadal could not answer, then backed Nadal up with another deep shot down the middle that was too good. Djokovic thus broke back for 3-4 and quickly held for 4-4. Nadal’s momentum had been halted, and the Serbian was back near full tilt. At 4-4 in that fifth set, the two players presented their best tennis simultaneously of the match. Nadal opened that game by coming out on top in a bruising 32 stroke rally, throwing Djokovic off guard with a slice backhand down the line at the end of the exchange. Djokovic fell onto his back in exhaustion as the crowd rose to its feet to salute both players. Nadal went to 30-0 but Djokovic collected three points in a row to earn a break point opportunity.

Nadal steadied himself admirably, swung a slice serve wide that provoked Djokovic into an errant return, and soon the Spaniard held on for 5-4. Djokovic, however, was unshakable again. He soared to 40-0 in the tenth game, served a double fault, then held at 15. He was level at 5-5. Nadal saved a break point at 30-40 but Djokovic was unrelenting, earning another chance to break. Nadal went for a short backhand slice down the line, perhaps trying to draw Djokovic in. But that shot landed meekly in the net. Djokovic was ascendant once more, leading 6-5, serving for the match.

He raced to 30-0, but Nadal had another burst of inspiration, taking three points in a row to earn a break point. Djokovic did not panic, lacing a backhand crosscourt to rush the Spaniard into an error. Nadal then missed a backhand off the net cord, and Djokovic at long last moved to match point. His first serve down the T was excellent, eliciting a weak return. Djokovic was ready, stepping forward confidently for a forehand inside-out winner. It was the most courageous victory he has ever recorded. And it came on the heels of a semifinal confrontation with a highly charged Murray that lasted four hours and 50 minutes, a skirmish that found Djokovic close to the brink of defeat.

Djokovic played a solid first set against the British No. 1, who seemed calmer and more purposeful with his new coach Ivan Lendl at courtside. Murray was missing too frequently off the forehand in that first set, and he did not make the Serbian work hard enough. Djokovic rolled to 2-0 in the second set with a break point in the third game, but wasted that opening with an unforced forehand crosscourt error. Given that reprieve, Murray raised his game significantly. Suddenly, he found his range and increased his velocity considerably off the forehand, stepped up into the court to dictate, and altered the complexion of the match. Murray won six of the next seven games from 0-2 down to take that second set. He was very much in the match.

Yet five break points eluded Murray in the opening game of the third set. Djokovic was determined to resume his mastery. The two players exchanged breaks in the third and fourth games. The Serbian then took a 5-4 lead, and had three set points with Murray serving in the tenth game. Murray saved them all with sparkling play, coming up with an ace, a forehand crosscourt winner, and a well-executed drop shot which set up a backhand down the line that was tantamount to a winner. Murray gamely held on for 5-5, broke Djokovic in the following game, but grew tentative as Djokovic broke back for 6-6.

Nevertheless, Murray regrouped swiftly. At 1-2 in the tie-break, Djokovic double faulted. Although the Serbian climbed back to 3-3, Murray served an ace for 4-3 and then drew an error off the backhand from Djokovic with a strong two-hander of his own. Murray advanced to 6-3 by accelerating the pace off his forehand, hitting a big forehand crosscourt to set up a scintillating forehand winner hit behind the Serbian. Murray closed out the tie-break, 7-4, building two sets to one lead, giving his supporters a reason to believe in him and his chances. At that moment, Djokovic had won 114 points in the match while Murray had garnered 113, yet the British player was out in front.

But Murray needed to start the fourth set with conviction, and failed to do that. Djokovic broke Murray in the opening game at 30 as the No. 4 seed made a weary unforced error off the forehand. Djokovic was ruthless and relentless in exploiting his newfound opportunity. He held at love for 2-0 with an ace and a forehand swing volley winner, and broke Murray at 30 for 3-0. The set was as good as over with Djokovic up two breaks. Djokovic served another love game as a depleted Murray offered little resistance. Murray had let him off the hook with his timidity and negative body language at that stage, allowing the Serbian to reach 4-0 swiftly. Djokovic had swept 16 of 20 points in the process. Djokovic took the set 6-1 in commanding fashion, and then surged to 5-2 in the fifth set. Murray was looking like nothing more than a gallant five set loser. But he held on in a deuce game for 3-5, shouting “Come On!” to spur himself on as he held. Djokovic served for the match in the ninth game. He had lost only three points in his previous four service games, and victory seemed certain to belong to him.

But Djokovic was serving into the wind, and a reinvigorated Murray surprisingly had some wind back in his sails. He broke Djokovic at love, closing out that game with consecutive forehand winners driven with gusto. Murray held easily for 5-5. By now, there had been a role reversal. Djokovic was more fatigued and Murray was the sharper and more confident competitor. With Djokovic serving in the eleventh game, the British player reached 15-40. Djokovic stymied him there with a slice serve wide eliciting a netted forehand return. Then the two protagonists had a 30 stroke exchange. On the penultimate shot of that rally, Djokovic caught Murray off guard with a sizzling forehand down the line. Murray could only stab at a sliced backhand and steer it wide down the line.

Two break points had eluded Murray but he had another. This time he missed a routine two-hander into the net, wasting a fine return of serve that had given him an apparent edge in the rally. An obstinate and disciplined Djokovic held on for 6-5. Three times on his way to a 15-40 deficit in the twelfth game, Murray missed off the backhand. Djokovic then ventured to the net, played a first rate forehand volley crosscourt, and coaxed Murray into an arduous passing shot error. Djokovic had prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5. In many ways, Murray lost the match in the fourth set with his tameness, yet he almost pulled off an astonishing comeback in the end. He nearly stole that match back from Djokovic. All in all, it was a good effort from a man who has now gone at least to the semifinals in five straight Grand Slam events.

In the other semifinal, Nadal and Federer collided for the 27th time in their illustrious rivalry. Federer had not been beaten in a match since his loss to Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open, but he had pulled out of Doha in his season opening event of 2012, defaulting a semifinal to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with an injured back. Coming off an inspired straight set victory over 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals, the 30-year-old Swiss had many in the know believing he might turn the tables on Nadal this time. The Spaniard had lost the first set to Tomas Berdych in the quarters, and was set point down in the second set tie-break before taking his game to another level the last two sets and recording a four set win. Some authorities thought that Federer was playing the better brand of tennis, and would topple the Spaniard.

But Nadal stopped his old rival with a spirited, come from behind, four set triumph, raising his record over Federer to 18-9, extending his lead in their Grand Slam personal series to 8-2. They had not met in a semifinal at a major since the 2005 French Open, so this appointment was a treat for the Australian fans as they saw these two immensely popular players clash in the penultimate round. Federer came out of the gates with brio, breaking Nadal in the second game, rolling to 3-0, then extending his lead to 4-1. He was not allowing the Spaniard the opportunity to control the tactical agenda at the outset. Federer kept his adversary off balance, and served purposefully and accurately. In his first three service games, Federer connected with 13 of 14 first serves, winning 12 of 14 points in the process.

But Nadal sensibly recognized that he was still only down a break. He aced Federer with the slice serve out wide in the ad court to hold at 30 for 2-4 and then broke the Swiss in the seventh game. Federer led 30-15 but his serve-and-volley tactic backfired as Nadal kept his return low and forced the world No. 3 into a backhand first volley error. Federer then sent a forehand inside-in wide, and that took Nadal to break point. Once again, Federer went to the serve-and-volley, trying an angled backhand volley crosscourt. Nadal tracked it down comfortably, whipping a forehand passing shot winner crosscourt for the break.

Nadal had his teeth into the match. Both players held to set up a tie-break. Federer was simply too good in that sequence. He did not lose a point on his serve in the tie-break, taking it 7-5. He did not make any unforced errors. Federer had come through with some clutch play to seize the initiative and seal the set, but Nadal had come back strong, and was far from discouraged. Federer broke the Spaniard at love in the first game of the second set, yet Nadal immediately retaliated, breaking back at love for 1-1. At 2-2, Nadal saved a break point, profiting from a forehand down the line error from Federer. Nadal held on with tenacity for 3-2, and then won arguably the single most important game of the match. With Federer serving at 0-30, Nadal connected with a spectacular running forehand passing shot crosscourt off an acrobatic high backhand volley from Federer, angled acutely crosscourt.

That dazzling shot made it 0-40. Federer rallied to 30-40, but Nadal struck back boldly again with another magnificent passing shot. Federer made a fine approach to the backhand, but Nadal stayed low and drove a two-hander brilliantly up the line for a winner. The Spaniard had broken with a flourish, advancing to 4-2. He held for 5-2, but it was Australia Day and fireworks went off not far away from Laver Arena. The match was delayed for ten minutes. Nadal came back from the break without any trouble, but Federer was disoriented and unsettled. Too much of his quiet intensity was gone. Nadal broke Federer at love to close out the second set, held at love to start the third, and took a 0-40 lead on Federer’s serve in the next game.

Federer had lost no fewer than eleven points in a row, seven on his own serve. Had he lost his serve at this juncture, the consequences would have been enormous. But the four time former Australian Open champion recovered his concentration just in time. He had just served consecutive double faults to put himself down 0-40, but back he came with relish. Eventually he held on after three deuces. That was a crucial hold. The set went to 3-3. In the seventh game, Nadal saved three break points, but Federer persisted. On his fourth break point, the Swiss drove a topspin backhand down the line that rushed Nadal into a netted backhand.

Here they were at one set all, but Federer had put himself two holds away from taking the critical third set. Serving at 4-3, 15-0, Federer faltered. He missed a forehand down the line on the run, and double faulted into the net. At 15-30, Nadal produced another terrific passing shot, snapping a forehand crosscourt on the run to thwart his foe. Nadal was at double break point, and he did not waste it, crunching an inside-out forehand to provoke a running forehand error from Federer. The Spaniard was even again at 4-4. Both men held comfortably until Federer served at 5-6. Nadal had a set point but his return was too cautious and short, enabling Federer to step in and crack an inside-out forehand winner with ease and elegance. Federer held on to bring about another tie-break.

Nadal took a commanding 6-1 lead, but he turned passive. Federer was bold and fearless in saving four set points in a row, and the Spaniard served at 6-5 with growing anxiety. Yet he settled his nerves, getting his first serve in deep to the backhand, then shifting back into an aggressive mode to take Federer’s relatively short return early. Nadal’s penetrating inside-out forehand was cracked with authority, and Federer’s attempted defensive sliced forehand found the net. Nadal had done it the hard way, but ultimately he had taken the set.

In the early stages of the fourth set, Nadal had some openings to perhaps close out the contest. Federer saved a break point at 1-1 with a service winner wide to Nadal’s forehand in the ad court. At 2-2, Federer trailed 15-40, but he attacked his way out of that corner and held on again. Federer then created his own chance with Nadal serving at 3-4. At break point, he went for broke with an inside-out forehand, but his trademark shot landed narrowly wide. Nadal gamely held on for 4-4, and soon went to work assiduously in the ninth game in an attempt to break Federer. The Swiss cast aside two break points, but Nadal made another scintillating forehand passing shot crosscourt to set up a third break point. Federer was out of solutions. He lost control of a topspin backhand crosscourt, sending that shot wide.

Nadal was serving for the match in the tenth game of the fourth set, but Federer was still fighting tenaciously. Nadal reached match point at 40-30, only to miss a backhand passing shot by a small margin. Federer got to break point, and seemed to have it in his hands. His return was deep, and Nadal’s reply barely made it over the net, clipping the net cord. Federer handled that awkward moment well, going down the line with his forehand. Nadal threw up a defensive lob down the line, with little margin for error. But he somehow kept it inside the sideline, and the lob hit the baseline. Federer had retreated to track the ball down, and should have hit a forehand. He chose instead to take it as an overhead on the bounce, but got excessive slice on that smash, and his shot went wide.

Federer quickly earned a second break point, and Nadal challenged him predictably, serving wide to the backhand. Federer netted a difficult return. There would be no more chances for the Swiss. Nadal collected two points in a row for a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 triumph. It was a first rate match in neutral conditions for both players on a relatively slow hard court, and a very important win for the Spaniard in the first major of the new year against his old and formidable rival.

For Federer, it was another irrefutable setback. He last won a major at the 2010  Australian Open, and has lost in eight Grand Slam events in a row, falling in that span three times to Djokovic, twice to Nadal, and once each to Robin Soderling, Berdych and Tsonga. Remarkably, he has reached only one major final since he ruled at the Australian Open two years ago. He remains a strong contender at all of the Grand Slam events, and his enduring motivation is admirable and undeniable. But his task is daunting these days.

Meanwhile, Djokovic has entered a new realm as a competitor. He will seek to become the first man since Laver to win four majors in a row when he goes to Roland Garros in late May. Djokovic has never reached the final in Paris, but his game now translates as well to clay as it does to any other surface. He won two Masters 1000 events last year en route to the French Open, but bowed in the Roland Garros semifinals against a top of the line Federer on a day when his own game was not operating at peak efficiency.

The fascination among the public with the men’s game keeps spiraling. Federer remains in the hunt, and can never be counted out. Nadal is redoubtable, a man of immense character, and a warrior with a heart of gold and a mind of steel. He is not going to give up his pursuit of more majors and his goal of achieving some big wins over Djokovic, but he knows exactly what he is up against and how tall a task that will be. Murray is closing in on his long awaited first major. The view here is that he will win either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open this year.

But the game’s pace setter is clearly Djokovic, the man who has won four of the past five majors, the player who is outperforming everyone else, the champion who spent a combined total of ten hours and 43 minutes to capture back to back five set matches for the first time in his career. He became only the third player ever to beat Nadal in a five set match, joining Federer—who has done it twice—and Lleyton Hewitt—who did it at the Australian Open seven years ago. Djokovic has secured five major titles, and the view here is that he will reach double digits before he puts the racket down for good.

How can any of us not admire his perspicacity, durability and professionalism? How can we not marvel at his transformation from a fragile personality into a towering champion? How do we not salute him for turning himself into such a staunch competitor? His win over the great and indomitable Nadal in the final of the Australian Open was an inspiring triumph of the will, a reaffirmation of his character, and a win he will cherish forever. This was surely one of the ten best men’s matches of the Open Era. Djokovic took every stinging punch thrown by a noble opponent for nearly six hours, and in the end he was deservedly the last man standing in the arena.