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Australian Open

Djokovic outlasts Nadal in epic final

Novak Djokovic could hardly contain himself after needing almost six hours to dispatch Rafael Nadal to win his fifth Grand Slam singles title. Novak Djokovic could hardly contain himself after needing almost six hours to dispatch Rafael Nadal to win his fifth Grand Slam singles title. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)
By Christopher Clarey
The New York Times / January 30, 2012
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MELBOURNE - The tennis marathon has already been redefined, in all likelihood for good, by John Isner’s victory over Nicolas Mahut in the opening round of Wimbledon in 2010.

How do you top 11 hours 5 minutes and 70-68 in the fifth set?

But Novak Djokovic was certainly feeling second to no one today as he bellowed and flexed his bare chest in Rod Laver Arena after a match that ended at 1:37 a.m.

This was no first-week curiosity shop he had just closed down with his staying power and talent. This was the Australian Open final, his third straight Grand Slam final, and Djokovic had come out on top once more against Rafael Nadal, one of the most relentless competitors in tennis history, who is slowly turning into Djokovic’s muse.

Plenty of suffering was required to produce tennis art this time, however. Djokovic, the No. 1 seed and defending champion, defeated the second-seeded Nadal, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 7-5, and required 5 hours 53 minutes to do so. That made this the longest Grand Slam men’s singles final in recorded history.

“Wimbledon is right up there next to this one, because it’s just the tournament that I always dreamed of winning,’’ said Djokovic, when asked if this was his greatest victory. “But this one I think comes out on the top, because just the fact that we played almost six hours is incredible, incredible.’’

But numbers, and there were many of them as last night turned into this morning, do not sum up the emotional power of this duel, which deserves a place among the most riveting matches in the modern history of the sport.

It was the latest joint venture in a golden age in the men’s game that has repeatedly matched strength against strength. For now, there can be no doubt that Djokovic, 24, is the strongest. In the past seven months, he and Nadal have played for the trophy at Wimbledon, the US Open, and now the Australian Open. Djokovic has won every final, supplanting Nadal as the game’s top player last year and beating him seven times in a row.

“I lost a match, but it was perhaps the final that I lost that hurts the least, because I did all I could,’’ Nadal said. “I fought with everything I had.’’

So it seemed as he stared down trouble in the fourth set and again late in the fifth, but Nadal still could not avoid becoming the first man in the Open era to lose three straight major singles finals.

“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,’’ Djokovic said.

It was the third Australian Open title and fifth Grand Slam singles title for Djokovic, who still is far behind Nadal, who has 10, and Roger Federer, who has won a record 16.

But Djokovic is on quite a roll in a rough era and has now won four of the last five major tournaments contested, the only loss in that stretch coming in the semifinals of last year’s French Open against Federer.

But since taking the reins of the men’s game, Djokovic has not been pushed quite like this in a major match. After this, his grueling four-set final with Nadal at last year’s US Open seems like a short story. The longest major singles final in recorded history until now was the 1988 US Open final in which Mats Wilander defeated Ivan Lendl in 4 hours 54 minutes. This one went very nearly an hour longer, and the winner never seemed clear until Djokovic’s final shot.

Nadal appeared to be on his way to losing earlier when he fell behind by 0-40 on his serve in the eighth game of the fourth set. But Nadal hit and hustled his way out of that tight spot to keep Djokovic from serving for the match, and that effort coincided with the arrival of light rain.

After a 10-minute delay to close the arena’s retractable roof, the two rivals resumed the baseline hostilities indoors, and Nadal eventually prevailed in a tiebreaker to force a fifth set, the first fifth set in their 30 matches against each other. It would transform an already exceptional match into something rarer, and there will be ample debate in various time zones about where this final ranks in the historical pecking order, which includes masterpieces like Bjorn Borg’s five-set victory over John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final or Nadal’s five-set victory over Federer on the same patch of grass in the 2008 final.

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