In the first Grand Slam final of the year, the top two players in the world, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, battled it out in an epic 5-set encounter that lasted just shy of six hours. It was a match that could have gone either way, but in the end Novak Djokovic prevailed over his great rival 57 64 62 67(5) 75 to capture his 5th Grand Slam title, 3rd in a row, and 7th straight victory over Nadal. It was a pure battle of wills, but in the end, Nadal's own defensive nature cost him the match. One thing is for sure, both Nadal and Djokovic are going to take a LONG time to recover from this epic contest.
In the first set, Nadal got an early break lead to go up 3-2. The Serb looked fatigued after the marathon semifinal clash with Andy Murray, and maybe this time, things would be different. The first set was going to be crucial, one would think, in the outcome of this match. If Nadal could get confidence and get a lead, the result may be different. But alas, the lead did not last long, as Djokovic broke back in the 8th game to make it 4-4. However, just two games later, Nadal broke once again (a recurring theme in these matches) to go up 6-5. This time, he held, and won the first set 7-5. It was a hard fought set that lasted well over an hour, and in hindsight, it was a sign of things to come.
The second set was similar in the opposite way, with Djokovic getting the early break and going up 5-3. Nadal broke back when Novak was serving out the set, but as is the case with these two warriors playing, a break is not a break until consolidated. Novak received the benefit of a Nadal double fault to take the 2nd set 6-4.
In the third, it was not close, and Djokovic continued to open up his shoulders and push Rafa far behind the baseline. He won the set 6-2 and it looked very much like the match would mirror their Wimbledon and US Open matches from 2011 (tough, hard-grinding 4-set matches). In that crucial 4th set, Rafa was hanging on for dear life. He held many tight service games, all the way until 4-3, 0-40. This was it. Djokovic was going to break and serve his 5th Grand Slam title out. But wait! Nadal clawed back, played some incredible tennis, and somehow, in ways I cannot fathom, he held to make it 4-4. From that point, you could feel the momentum turning. Nadal started playing more aggressively and Djokovic was reeling. The set went to a tiebreak and Nadal was pumped up. At 6-5, set point Nadal, a forehand went wide and, oh my, we were going 5!
This was the first time in 30 matches that Nadal and Djokovic were going to a deciding 5th set. And on such an occasion to do it too! At the start of the set, Djokovic looked exhausted. Understandable too, with all the tennis he had played in the previous 48 hours. The tide that had been turning since Rafa saved three break points in the 4th set seemed unchangeable. He got the break to go up 4-2. Certainly this match was soon to be over? Novak was limping between points and even falling down once or twice after rallies of gargantuan length. Then, out of the blue, the tide turned again. Nadal, up 4-2 and 30-15, had an easy backhand passing shot at the service line. If he makes it, he would certainly go onto win the match. But he missed, out of absolute disbelief. Funny I should say that, because that miss gave Djokovic all the belief in the world. He went onto break and hold to make it 4-4. Djokovic had come back from the brink of defeat. The fatigue Novak showed at the start of the 5th set was starting to vanish. A few games later at 5-5, the "Man of Steel" from Serbia broke and then held to close out the match. Another incredible 7-5 win for Djokovic in the 5th set, something he is coming to be well-known for.
5 hours and 53 minutes of the most physical baseline tennis you will ever see, but in the end, Novak Djokovic prevailed to win his 3rd straight Grand Slam final over Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard becomes the first man to lose three straight Grand Slam finals, and surely now, Djokovic must be locked in Nadal's head. Rafa came so close to winning the match, but ultimately faltered due to his own failures. Throughout the entire match, Nadal blindly looped his forehand to the Djokovic backhand, as if not remembering that the Serb's backhand, especially his shoulder-height backhand, is the best shot in the game. When Nadal had Djokovic on the ropes in the 5th set, when Novak was beat up and tired, Rafa let him back in the match by playing defensive and hoping Djokovic would make the error. But he didn't, and Rafa fell back into the same pattern of play he had seen for much of the match. In the end, Rafa went to what was most comfortable for him, the divine space 10 feet behind the baseline where he can miraculously run down would-be winner after would-be winner, and because he chose to do this, he paid the ultimate price in the end: a third straight Grand Slam final defeat and a stinging sensation of knowing he was so close to winning the match, but ultimately falling short.
Without any doubt in my mind, this match will go down as one of the greatest ever, but not THE greatest ever for numerous reasons. While it was incredibly impressive that these two gladiators were on court for nearly 6 hours, length alone should not classify this match the best. If you were to do some calculations, the match would have been just over 4 hours long if both Nadal and Djokovic served at a normal pace. Instead, they both take far too long to serve and without any doubt, the match was ONLY near six hours in length because the two men take such a long time to get the points underway. Your opinion of the match merely comes down to the type of tennis you enjoy watching. Do you love long, physical, corner-to-corner baseline rallies where neither man attacks the net? This is the match for you. But if you are like me and enjoy the all-court game that features attacking tennis, beautiful volleys, and great serving, this may not be your cup of tea. The one thing I can say without any question is that Djokovic and Nadal are two of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen, and their endless bounds of stamina and physical strength is enough to make the viewers fatigued from just staring at their screens.
We as a collective viewing audience will have to wait and see what effect this match will have on the psyche of Rafael Nadal. There have already been countless comparisons to the Australian Open 2009 final in which a depleted Rafael Nadal overcame the fresh and hungry Roger Federer in 5 sets. This time, the roles are reversed, and it was a depleted Novak Djokovic who overcame his fiercest rival Rafael Nadal in the longest Grand Slam men's final ever played. The one thing I can say for absolutely certainty about the future of Nadal is that he will need to take a long look at himself and will need to stray far outside his comfort zone if he ever wishes to beat Novak Djokovic again. It is clear that his one play that works so well against Roger Federer is the one play that becomes his downfall against Novak Djokovic. If Nadal can prove he is not one-dimensional, he may be able to knock his biggest rival off the top of the mountain. But then, and only then, will he able to accomplish such a magnificent feat. For the time being, Nadal will need to do some serious soul-searching. If there is one thing I understand as a huge Federer fan, it is pain, and I console all the Nadal fans who are gut-busted after witnessing such a painful defeat. To all the Djokovic fans, your man is the unquestionable #1 in men's tennis, and enjoy the great victory.
After witnessing such a fantastic, physical match that pushed Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to places within themselves they did not know existed, there is little question that the game of tennis won. It is a shame that there had to be a winner and a loser because both men pushed each other to produce a match that may never be rivaled in terms of its length, physicality, and stamina. However, there is one clear loser in the big picture, and that is Rafael Nadal. He had the match won on his racket, and hit a costly mental roadblock for which he could not recover. Quite simply, Nadal was stubborn and he did the one thing that could not be done against Djokovic - he let him back into the match. You have to wonder if he will ever be the same. I know Federer was never the same after his emotional defeat to Nadal three years ago.
PS, on match point Djokovic, this is a loose transcript of what I said. At this point in the match, I was as intense as I had ever been watching a tennis match and was begging Djokovic to win.
"Alright Nole, come on, one more point and you have this match won. Go up the middle with the slice serve, Nadal will pop it up, you will hit the winner, and you win. Do it Novak."
Guess what Djokovic did? He had my predicted slice serve up the middle, Nadal looped it up short in the middle of the court, and Novak put it away for the match-concluding shot. Can I predict these things or what?