Djokovic Wins Longest-Ever Grand Slam Final

18:28 Sun 29 Jan 2012
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Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7 (5), 7–5, in 5 hours and 53 minutes. It was an incredible final, one in which both players exhibited astonishing speed, endurance, and resilience. Djokovic was not quite at his best, but still had enough—eventually—to overcome Nadal. I rank it among the best matches I’ve seen, probably just behind the 2008 Wimbledon final.

Djokovic started out slightly off, likely as a result of having played for almost four hours against Murray the night before. Nadal had played his semifinal a full day before that, beating Federer in a comparatively brief four sets. Nadal did look mentally a little shaky at the start, and let Djokovic back into the first set before making a successful push for it. At that point the tennis was already extremely physical, with long and arduous rallies showcasing ludicrous court coverage.

In the first set, it seemed that Djokovic just wasn’t getting the usual amount penetration, on his groundstrokes. It was apparently very humid, and this might have been making the balls move slightly slower—enough to take a slight edge from Novak. That, combined with Nadal’s amazing defensive ability, meant that Djokovic had to do quite a lot of work to actually win points. On the other hand, Nadal was making quite a few unforced[1] errors, and Djokovic would punish any short ball that came his way, so it remained close throughout.

The sense was that even though Nadal was winning, Djokovic was beginning to find his form, and Nadal was able to just snatch the set before Djokovic hit his stride. The next two sets were a clinic from Novak in both power tennis and how not to get frustrated. No matter how many amazing defensive plays Nadal made, no matter how many points Nadal won after it was clear that Djokovic was in control of the rally, Djokovic refused to be fazed, and simply got back to work.

As he’s proven repeatedly over the last year, Djokovic’s offense is better than Nadal’s defense. Consistently better; unlike Federer, who has to play his very best tennis to overcome Nadal’s defense, Djokovic’s game doesn’t allow Nadal any easy outs, and Djokovic is able to play at a sustainable level and still overcome Nadal.

Nadal’s best periods were when he played more aggressively and pushed to take control of points immediately. He won a lot of points where he did that, but it’s a very difficult shift for him to maintain. As the ESPN commentators noted, his defensive game is good enough to beat everyone—except Djokovic. Against everyone else, Nadal can play defensive tennis until he reaches a stage in the rally where he’s presented with a clear opportunity, and that’s a winning formula. Djokovic puts him under too much pressure, most of the time, when Nadal is on the defensive. That he should go on that attack sooner is clear—but it’s also extremely difficult to do, especially against the best player in the world.

Nadal’s struggles in this match reminded me quite a lot of what it’s like to watch Federer play Nadal: one gets the impression, somehow, that Federer “should” be winning. The points seem to be under his control, and it seems as if he has the ability to win but loses his concentration or lets his play slide, and that if he just worked past that he’d win. Against Djokovic, it looked as if the same were true for Nadal. He won many of the more spectacular points. When he stepped up to attack, he’d win. But then he’d make errors, and appear to be handing control back to Djokovic.

In addition, this match is the first time I can remember seeing a player appear to be consistent, “unbeatable”—and losing. With Federer, his brilliance comes most often in quick strikes, so in a way one can see how it can be there one moment and gone the next. With Nadal, his brilliance is in sustained defense and rallying, and it’s much harder to see how he can consistently play in a way where he simply gets back everything and waits for a small moment of vulnerability and then takes the point, yet lose the next. It was extremely rare for Djokovic to lose control of a point and still win it, whereas Nadal appeared to have lost points over and over again only to suddenly turn things around. That’s what I mean by his looking unbeatable, and yet he was, clearly, losing.

We can’t really see on the screen all that’s important in the match. We can’t truly see the weight of shot the players are hitting, or the ways in which ball spin and ball speed put them under pressure. Just as it’s very difficult to truly appreciate the phenomenal coordination it takes for Federer to deal with Nadal’s forehand to Federer’s backhand, it’s very difficult to see what an achievement it is for Nadal to cope with the power of Djokovic’s shots coming right to his feet. Particularly when Djokovic does this relentlessly, and has court coverage equal to Nadal’s own. What look like poor shots, “unforced errors”, are actually more-or-less inevitable failures under repeated strain.

Nadal’s resilience in the fact of this was formidable. This was perhaps the most physically gruelling tennis match I’ve ever seen, and at times I thought that Nadal would win it because of that, because he was just going to keep Djokovic on court forever until he broke down. Late in the fourth set Nadal found the right mix of aggression and tenacity, saved three break points at 3–4, 0–40, and forced a tiebreak in a set where Djokovic had seen almost no pressure on his own serve and had made Nadal fight tooth and nail to avoid being broken. In the tiebreak, he kept forcing Djokovic to hit the extra shot (or several extra shots), and Djokovic eventually missed one or two—and then Nadal took the tiebreak, 7–5, on his first set point.

It looked as if Nadal had willed himself to victory; Djokovic was clearly suffering physically, and it seemed Nadal had simply ground him down. Nadal broke, and with Djokovic serving at 2–4, 0–30, Nadal again ran down everything in a long rally and had a fairly open shot at a passing shot, with Djokovic out of position at the net (and, I think, having given up on the point)—but he pushed the passing shot just wide of the line. Suddenly, Djokovic had energy again. His body language changed, and he started hitting more winners and covering more court, and he broke back to level the fifth set. At 5–5, he constantly pressured Nadal’s serve, which had been sub-par (in terms of power) for much of the day, and eventually secured a break (although the point he won at deuce was slightly tarnished by the fact that Nadal thought Djokovic’s ball had been called out, misled by crowd noise). When he did secure that break, it seemed clear that he would now not relinquish his hold on the match, and he didn’t.

This title is Djokovic’s fifth major, and Nadal is the first man in the Open Era to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals. If Novak wins in Paris—which must be considered a possibility—he would become the first man since Laver to hold all four major titles at once. Much will depend on the draw; Djokovic’s chances are better if he doesn’t have to face Federer, and I assume that on clay Nadal will be favored against anyone other than Djokovic. Last night’s match makes me think that while it’s possible that Djokovic could beat Nadal at Roland Garros, it would take a near-superhuman effort to do so, similar to what it took from Nadal to beat Federer at Wimbledon. Meanwhile, I think that Murray has closed the gap with the Big Three a little, while Federer has slipped slightly. Barring some major unexpected event, the Big Four will be the only relevant men in the draw when the French Open begins.

[1] At least, in the sense that any error while being pressured by probably the best exponent of pure baseline power tennis in the world can be considered “unforced”.

2 Responses to “Djokovic Wins Longest-Ever Grand Slam Final”

  1. Alpesh Says:

    Was looking forward to your take on the match as soon as I found out what had happened. I caught some of the rebroadcast, including Nadal’s backhand miss in the 5th set that you mentioned. I never found myself thinking of a tennis match as violent until today. They just punished the ball over and over. It was tiring just watching it! :)

  2. Tadhg Says:

    It was such a physical match. I couldn’t believe they were hitting 100mph winners in the fourth set! A truly epic stand by Nadal, and amazing toughness from both players.

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