My tribute to the 2012 Australian Open Men’s Final

January 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

At 1.30AM, after five hours and 53 minutes on court one man raised his arms, roared in triumph, and ripped off his shirt.

Novak Djokovic, the world’s undisputable number one men’s tennis player had won his third Australian Open. His third consecutive Grand Slam, his fifth overall.

On the other side of the court, his opponent, Rafael Nadal, once again was faced with the bitterness and sadness of defeat.

A Grand Slam winner on ten previous occasions, including at Melbourne Park, yesterday he came up short against the man who seems to be unbeatable.

Epic

It was an epic encounter. There are simply no other words fitting for this match. Many have said that the 2008 Wimbledon Final between Nadal and long-time rival Roger Federer was the best match in tennis history.

Today, that match has been given a run for its money.

As Nadal said, “I think we played a great tennis match. It was I think I very good show, my opinion. I enjoyed being part of this event and this match.”

Over five sets and nearly six hours, making it the longest match in Australian Open history, these two men fought for victory.

And long and hard did they fight. Neither of these men plays with the grace and elegance that belongs to Federer. Both these men scramble, running around the court, somehow returning balls that should not be gotten back over the net.

The match

It was a match, for both, in which it could have been won or lost, a fact not lost on Djokovic, “…really both of us could have won the match.  It could have gone either way.”

After coming out firing, playing aggressive and close to the baseline – unconventionally for him – Nadal took the first set 7-5.

In the second, Djokovic broke Nadal early on, racing to a 4-1 lead. And in spite off fighting back from 4-2 down, Nadal lost 6-4. The two were even, and the match would have no choice but to go to at least four sets.

Now I will admit, much of the third set I did not watch. While I admire Djokovic for his undeniable talent and his comedic nature, I am a Rafa fan through and through.

After seeing his level of play drop in the second set – with what seemed to be a drop-off in aggression and a return to his defensive way of playing – I found it easier to be distracted.

Seeing Djokovic win the third set, with relative ease at 6-2, was just a little too much to bear.

But in the fourth I forced myself to watch. I convinced myself that as a hard-core fan I at least could be loyal enough to see him fight it out. And that is what he did. Nadal, once again showed that he may be down, but rarely is he ever out.

At 3-4 Nadal found himself at love-40, presenting Djokovic with the chance not only to break but also to then serve for the championship. It seemed that the fat lady was singing out loud and clear.

But Nadal did not appear to hear her, and played three of his best consecutive points in the match to bring the game to deuce. He then held serve.

The fourth went to a tie-break, with Nadal initially getting a mini-break to go 3-2 up, only to have Djokovic fight and break back himself.

Djokovic then went to 5-3, but Nadal kept fighting the music. Finally, when a Djokovic forehand went long, Nadal won the fourth set.

With his knees to the ground, the cry of ‘vamos’ and his arms pumping, one would have thought he’d won the championship. Instead, the sold-out crowd at Rod Laver Arena were in for another set.

The fifth and deciding

Once again playing aggressive tennis, serving first for the first time in the match, Nadal went out to an early lead, breaking Djokovic to race to 4-2.

At 30-15 up on his own serve, Nadal missed a backhand down the line. As the BBC2 commentator said he had enough room to “drive a bus down there.”

It seemed this point, whether true or not, was the turning point in the fifth set. Djokovic broke Nadal and then held his own serve to level it out at 4-4.

Whether nerves by Nadal or simply superior playing by Djokovic, the latter then went on to break Nadal again, and on his own serve bring up championship point.

He would only need the one, winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5.

Beyond endurance

What will stand out about this match – at least for me – is the endurance of these players.

After almost six hours on court – albeit with a brief rain delay, and the closing of the roof during the fourth set– these two warriors were playing games that lasted five or ten minutes, engaging in rallies that went to 20 or 30 shots, and still hitting clean winners.

They went beyond the normal human capacities of endurance and provided a superhuman display of mental and physical strength.

This is more or less what Djokovic said in his press conference:

“And to be able to mentally hang in there and physically, you know  I mean, it was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies.”

And with grudging respect I take my hat off to Djokovic. A mere 40 hours before the final began he had ended another 5-set match with his semi-final win over Andy Murray – one that also went over five hours.

How he continued to stand, let alone hit stunning winners, I do not know. Any other human being (with perhaps the exception of Nadal – he did achieve the same feat in 2009 at the Australian Open) would have given in to exhaustion.

In his head?

Without even having to read the papers, without listening to the radio or watching the television, I can say almost without a doubt, that I know what all sports journalists will be saying about this match.

Not only that it was epic. Or that Djokovic is once again deserving of the praise that will be lauded upon him. But that once more he seems to have gotten into Nadal’s head.

Just as Nadal has (or appears to have) a mental edge over Federer, Djokovic appears to have a mental edge over Nadal. In the last seven finals that they have played in – including three Grand Slams – the man from Majorca has lost to the Serb.

As sentimental as it may sound (remember, I am a Rafa fan), I hope that this loss – one that involved an incredible fight back – does not dishearten Nadal too deeply.

Yes, it was a tough loss. But there are also positives that he can take away. For one he made it to the finals, without injury, for the first time in three years.

For another, he played an aggressive style of tennis, which is mildly foreign to a man used to playing defensively, from deep behind the base line.

This point it seems is not lost on Nadal, who said in his press conference: “I played more aggressive.  I played with more winners than ever.  My serve worked well.  The mentality and the passion was there another time better than probably never another time.”

And, in my extremely humble opinion, this is one of the keys to getting the better of Djokovic.

And I am sure that sooner or later (but please let it be sooner) that will be the case.

Final thoughts

As I sat watching, palms sweating, heart racing, unable to keep still, I was struck with the thought that those of us watching tennis today are privileged.

We are getting to see some of the best men’s tennis players that have ever played the game. However, they are the ones living the experience. We are just witnesses to their greatness.

I for one cannot wait for the rest of the season and for more greatness to come.

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