5 hours and 53 minutes into the Australian Open Final Novak Djokovic slunk to the floor in front of the net in a mixture of ecstasy and exhaustion as he finally slayed the Spanish bull; few can argue that this is not the greatest achievement of his glittering career to date. Astonishingly Djokovic played almost 11 hours of tennis within 48 hours. Not just any tennis, but the most intense, gruelling and high-octane tennis imaginable against two of his greatest rivals, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic has cemented his place at the top of the tree in men’s tennis, his third consecutive Grand Slam; he becomes the 5th player in history to achieve this feat (coincidentally two of the others happen to be Roger Federer and Nadal). Hopefully this mesmerising victory will discourage the belief that Djokovic’s annus mirabilis of 2011 was a fluke; here is an exceptional athlete who has all the components to continue his magnificent form.
Just as astounding as Djokovic’s powerful ground strokes are his powers of concentration and the intensity of his game, reflected in his supreme physical fitness. Djokovic began the final against Nadal heavily disadvantaged by the rigours and exertions demanded during the 5 hour enthralling epic against Murray on Friday.
What transpired was a contest of gladiatorial proportions in which Djokovic eventually prevailed 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 (5-7) 7-5. The final witnessed more twists and turns than an episode of Wacky Races, this blog could easily be reflecting on a magnificent comeback from the Spaniard Nadal, but that would have reckoned without Djokovic’s fiercely intense will to win. This is a match that the Djokovic of 2010 would have lost; a testament to his incredible transformation. To defeat a player like Nadal in these circumstances, a player widely recognised as the greatest competitor in tennis history, is truly extraordinary.
For Nadal it is a question of where to go to from here. This was a real opportunity to halt his losing sequence against the Serb, and he looked destined to do so as he swept into a 4-2 lead in the final set. The fine margins between victory and defeat were illustrated when, at 30-15, Nadal missed the simplest of backhand winners and ceded the initiative and momentum to the world number 1. An inability to defeat a visibly exhausted Djokovic will frustrate the Spaniard but should not derail his quest for future Majors; Nadal remains the king of clay and will enter the next Slam at Roland Garros as overwhelming favourite.
Both Nadal and Djokovic have the technical potential and mental capacity to rival Federer’s status as the greatest player in history. Andy Murray, the great pretender, had a fabulous tournament and there was enough evidence in his agonising semi-final defeat to Djokovic that he has what it takes to end his wait for a Grand Slam title sooner rather than later.
For Federer it must seem a daunting prospect to have to overhaul both Nadal and now Djokovic to reclaim his place at the summit of men’s tennis. Mental fragilities have crept into his game, yet he remains technically superb. However it is now 2 years since his last Grand Slam, the Australian Open of 2010, and the presence of an inspired Djokovic, a relentless Nadal and a determined Murray raise questions of his ability to claim another.
Not only are these fabulous tennis players but they are remarkable characters, a credit to their sport. Djokovic is equally comfortable with a microphone in his hand as opposed to a racquet, whilst Federer often delights the audience with his golden blazers and multilingual abilities. Nadal’s graciousness in defeat and victory is widely appreciated; whilst Murray’s dry wit should not be mistaken as a sulky demeanour.
Undoubtedly this is a golden age of tennis, a golden era comparable with that of the 1970s-80s, the era of Borg, McEnroe and Connors. In 3 of the last 4 Grand Slam semi-finals the line-up has been the same – Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray – whilst Djokovic and Nadal have now contested 3 consecutive Grand Slam finals and look set to cement a rivalry almost as stratospheric as Federer – Nadal and Borg – McEnroe.
The greatest final in Open history? This is debatable, yet it deserves its place in the stars next to the epic showdown between Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon in 2008 and the legendary Wimbledon Final of 1980 between McEnroe and Borg. But it will be remembered as the longest, beating the Federer – Nadal epic at Wimbledon in 2008 by over an hour. The golden era of men’s tennis is gathering momentum. The golden era of men’s tennis is not abating; it is here to stay.