Sunday, January 29, 2012
As I predicted yesterday, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the longest grand slam final of all-time 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5 in 5 hours and 53 minutes in Melbourne, Australia to win his 3rd Australian Open title, and 5th major title overall.
The words that come to mind to describe the level of the play in this match are "stunning," "incredible," "astonishing" and "ridiculous." There is an excellent breakdown of the match set by set by ESPN.com columnist Ravi Ubha. He is is (somewhat prematurely, I think) calling it the greatest major final of the Open era.
I'm not ready to call it that yet but I do think it deserves to be in the conversation, and will almost certainly be the most memorable match of the year. (But even that is difficult to predict; if it takes nearly 6 hours to complete a five-set match between these two players on a hard court surface, what the heck will happen if they face each other in the finals of Roland Garros' red clay?)
Djokovic has inserted himself into the conversation about the greatest player of all time. If Rafael Nadal dominates Roger Federer (currently leading their head to head 18-9) and Novak Djokovic has won a jaw-dropping seven matches in a row against Nadal, every single one a final (3 of them major finals) and Federer leads his head-to-head with Djokovic 14-10 (including inflicting the Serbian's only 2011 loss in a major) then who is the G.O.A.T.? (I would argue it is the person who wins the most major singles titles, period, and thus Federer.)
One of the most amazing thing about the 2012 Australian Open final were the switches of momentum. Nadal wins the first set but then loses the next two. In the 4th set Djokovic had triple break point when Nadal was serving at 3-4 when Nadal won a string of 5 points in a row with some otherworldly play which evened the score. In the 4th set tiebreak Djokovic led 5-3 and hit an attempted forehand winner down the line which would have given him 3 consecutive championship points and pushed it wide instead. After getting back on serve in the tiebreak, Nadal won the last 3 points of the tiebreak to even the set at 2-sets all.
In the 5th set, I (like most observers and commentators) presumed Nadal would win. This was the competitors first 5th set ever, so it showed that Nadal had made progress from the previous 29 meetings. Djokovic was looking visibly tired and deflated after being tantalizingly close to winning the match in 4 sets. Nadal was actually hitting the ball harder in the 5th set than he had in the first (average groundstroke speed was 3 mph higher, 75mph to 72mph)! Nadal broke first and was at 4-2, 30-15 when he inexplicably hit a sitter backhand just wide of the line instead of the open court Djokovic had conceded. That was all it took for the Serb to come back. He won that point and the next to get his first break point and eventually evened the 4th set at 4-all. The 5th set was the first set in the match where Nadal was serving first so Djokovic had the scoreboard pressure of playing from behind. This was crucial when Nadal held to go up 5-4 in the 5th set, but the Spaniard never even got a sniff in Djokovic's service game leading to 5-all. The 11th game of the 5th set was the decider, with Djokovic breaking Nadal on his second opportunity and served for the championship at 6-5. He quickly got up 30-0 but then Nadal won the next three points (mostly on Djokovic errors forced by Nadal's excellent play) to have a breakpoint to even the match and for the first time in over 3 hours Djokovic saved a breakpoint (Nadal was 4 of 5 on breakpoints to that point). Djokovic was able to win the last 3 points of the match to get back to duece at 6-5 and then won the last two points with excellent first serves which enabled him to get ahead in the rally early and he won the match on his first championship point with an easy inside-out forehand cross-court winner. For the first time (and probably not the last) Novak Djokovic defended a major title. If he wins the French Open in June (which I think is a distinct possibility) he will have won 4 slams in a row, something no man has been able to do since Rod Laver.
Absolutely amazing. On to the rest of 2012!