Tennis, over the past fortnight and especially the past few nights has proven to be a truly gladiatorial sport. After two astounding semi finals Melbourne was treated to one of the best tennis matches if not sporting performances to ever be played here.
It was a night where sport truly felt like theatre. Too astounding to be unscripted.
So long was this match it feels like the only tennis I’ve watched over the past fortnight has been Nadal vs Djokovic.
You live in the moment and think when you see a great match it is the best but this truly was the best match of tennis played in Australia, if not the world.
The first two sets seem like an eternity ago such was the length of the match.
Rafa began like a man who had won ten grand slam finals, intense, fast and pulsating was the tennis he played.
Djokovic did too, playing like the world number one that he is. Nadal won the first set and then lost the second, with Djokovic starting to take the dominant position.
He pounced on the Spaniard each time he showed one iota of vulnerability.
If the first and second sets were painted with the same brush as the two semi finals which saw Murray, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal play tight tennis, then the third set was their polar opposite. You don’t often see Rafa Nadal out muscled.
Crushing opponents with sheer brawn has been the hallmark of his game yet it was Djokovic who forced Nadal onto his heels. Rafa was forced to play defensive, sitting much farther back on the baseline than the Serbian.
Djokovic did not let up, playing much closer to the baseline and coupling this with precise and powerful hitting he kept Nadal at arms length for most of the night.
The world number one achieved this through courageously choosing to take the initiative in the match, fearlessly attacking Nadal and disallowing him to dictate the terms of the tussle.
At the three hour mark of the match (4-1 3rd set) Novak looked to be running on air whilst Nadal looked disheartened and increasingly cumbersome. To that point Rafa had only hit three shots from inside the baseline, an astounding statistic. Djokovic only lost two points in his service games for the set.
For Rafa to get back into the match he needed a fourth set like his third set in his 2011 US Open Final loss to Djokovic. In that set he somehow turned a similar tide to the one Djokovic had dumped on him in this game.
Rafa’s aptitude to repeat this was on display in the first game of the fourth set where he pushed the Serb in a triple deuce game. This a huge improvement from the way he dwindled easily during Djokovic’s service games in the third set. He, in a matter of minutes, went from completely submissive and pushed aside to once again competitive and nagging at the heels of the world number one.
Rafa hung in for the first seven games of the fourth set and Djokovic produced simply incredible tennis to almost break him in the eighth game.
Djokovic won the first three points to have three break points when Nadal managed to wrestle back all three of them and then hold the game. It was the game of the match that displayed these two amazing players at their best. It was perhaps the game of the tournament.
At four all the ten-minute rain break came. It was Melbourne’s laughable interlude, like a piece of humor in a Shakespearean play the crowd and players were able to rest and reflect on what had been to that point a masterpiece whilst waiting for the roof to close.
Djokovic held serve the next game, winning it with an immaculately struck forehand winner down the line from the doubles lines. An enormous amount of pressure was on Nadal, he had to hold to save the tournament from Djokovic’s grasp.
He did, due to a Djokovic error ,but Nadal made his own luck. His defense in the game was unequivocal, Novak threw everything at the Spaniard.
The tie breaker ensued, and it was huge. The unthinkable happened and Nadal won the set. No one will ever know how he did it. After the way Djokovic had toyed with him in the third set it was unthinkable Nadal could get back into the match. Remember: he was 5-3 down in the tie-break.
The fourth set felt like the climax, you sensed Djokovic would win even though Nadal hung in. The fifth immediately had a different feel. The inevitability of the result wasn’t there any more.
In fact by the time Nadal held serve to go up 3-2 it almost felt like Nadal was the more likely to win. The Serb, who had been so spritely in the third and fourth sets was now lumbering around the court, not getting his body in the correct positions to play his ground strokes to maximum effect.
Likewise Nadal had stepped up on the court and was playing with the initiative. He was not defending all the time.
Rafa got break point for the first time in two and a half hours in the sixth game. Djokovic hit the ball long and Nadal won the precious break. It shows how long he had been out of the match for. Up 4-2 Nadal then succumbed to a scrappy Djokovic fight to be broken back.
Novak got this break in a dogged manner, dissimilar to his previous domination of Nadal which was fluent and powerful.
He then held serve to make it 4-4. On completion of the game he kissed that cross he wore around his neck.
The first point of the next game was a 32 point marathon. Djokovic lost the point and fell onto his back, his chest almost bursting, so deep where the breaths he was sucking in.
Somehow Djokovic found himself with a break point in the game. He had been attempting winners every shot to shorten points. He was playing Russian Roulette tennis. Rafa for the first time in the match served and volleyed and got back the break point to deuce. After one more deuce Nadal managed to hold, it was 5-4 his way.
Again the tide of the match had changed. It was at 5-5 an even feeling. Nadal broke and it seemed he had the match but Djokovic after being laid on his back literally got up from the canvas and broke back and then held. Rafa, again defended a break point in the eleventh game but after another deuce Djokovic broke after Rafa sliced a ball into the net.
Djokovic was serving for the match at 6-5 after 5 hours and 46 minutes of play. He had a chance to bring up tournament point but smashed an overhead volley into the net. Nadal deserved it for willing himself to get the lob in.
Finally he had Championship Point. He converted, and fell onto his back, embraced his combatant Rafa, and then ripped his ripped his shirt open.
You cant describe this match properly, any attempt would be too clichéd or contrite.
As I write I cant think of a better sporting battle that has been seen in Melbourne, ever.