January 29, 2012

Melbourne Supremacy

It's hard to pick the word to best describe what went down at the Australian Open men's final on Sunday. Epic? Gutsy? Brilliant? Inspiring? Just plain long?

It was at once all those things, and probably a great deal more.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the two best athletes in the sport over the last twelve months, took the court in their third consecutive Grand Slam final, ironically the first time they'd ever met in Melbourne. The top-ranked Serb came in the defending champion, twice before a winner here, while the Spaniard, himself the titleist here in 2009, had made it past the quarterfinals for the first time since. He was better rested, some would argue, having an extra day's rest after his fairly routine defeat of Roger Federer in the semis -- Novak had just endured a nail-biting five setter against Andy Murray on Friday night, one which took just shy of five hours to complete. But from the get-go neither showed any signs of fatigue.

Nadal started off strong, dropping just one point in his first two service games and earning the first break to go up 2-3. But he struggled to consolidate the next game and ended up allowing Nole to draw back even a few minutes later. He ultimately closed out the set, but Djokovic turned the tables on the world #2 for the next two hours, cleaning up his errors, finding every angle and winning all but two points on serve in the third set. When the fourth began, it looked like all the momentum was squarely in his court, but Nadal remained strong. Neither allowed a break opportunity in that set, and after nearly an hour and a half -- and a ten minute delay during which the roof over Rod Laver Arena was closed for rain -- a reinvigorated Spaniard ran off with the tiebreak and forced the pair's first five setter in thirty meetings.

The decider seemed to be going in his favor too. Rafa was able to run his opponent around the court better early, took advantage of what seemed to be flagging energy from the Serb. On his first break chance since the second set, Nadal watched a Djokovic forehand sail long and looked to be in control again. But after building a lead in the next game, he missed the line on what should have been an easy shot and wasn't able to consolidate. When Djokovic broke again to take a 6-5 lead, Rafa was unable to convert an opportunity to draw back even the next game, and after nearly six hours -- the longest match ever at a Major final -- Nole was finally able to repeat: both as champion and as Nadal's newest, and possibly most irksome, foil.

Now three of Djokovic's five Major titles have come Down Under -- that's just one short of Roger Federer's and Andre Agassi's Open Era record, and playing the best tennis of his life at just twenty-four years of age, you have to think there's more to come. It sure seems like Melbourne has become his home away from home, the place he made his first big breakthrough in 2008, the place he continues to make a stand today.

But his performance here is even more impressive than that -- he's now solidly beaten every man in the top five at the Australian Open, some in convincing form, others after surviving prolonged battles, often with little time to rest between. So far he's been able to translate that into success at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- the trophy at Roland Garros is probably not far away. And by continuing the domination he began here last year, it'll be difficult for almost anyone else to make a dent in his force.

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