It’s rare that a game can captivate the audience. The best contests are ones played at the highest stakes. Recent Super Bowl memories involving my Giants, who once again will play the Patriots four years later, come to mind. Most notably, last year’s World Series that saw the Cards down to their final out in Game Six only to break Texas hearts in epic fashion. You never know when you’re going to see a game for the ages that won’t ever be forgotten.
I’ve always been a huge tennis fan. Grew up playing it and idolizing Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. A classic 80′s kid who always rooted against Ivan Lendl. To my kid eyes, he was the bad guy who wrecked more U.S. Opens for Connors and McEnroe. Back then, that’s just how it was. Sports were different. More patriotic. Good versus evil. Now, almost all athletes are embraced unless you turn your back on a city like LeBron James, fitting the classic bad guy role to a tee in Miami. The kind of story big media companies like ESPN need for ratings. Milk it for all its worth. All week, we’ll hear about Eli Manning and Tom Brady. Can Brady exact revenge four years later or will Eli etch his name in stone among great quarterbacks by winning a second Super Bowl, joining the likes of Starr, Bradshaw, Montana and Elway to rattle off a few. Only Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are active QBs that’ve won at least two Super Bowls.
While the debate will go all the way up to game time, we’ll devote this space to a new tennis rivalry born following an epic match played between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. In the longest played grand slam final in the Open Era, Djokovic repeated as champion by prevailing in five grueling sets over Nadal, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5, capturing his second consecutive Australian Open (third down under). A match that featured twists and turns along with death defying rallies which even left us breathless lasted a ridiculous five hours and fifty-three minutes. To put that into perspective, most hockey and basketball games take at most two and a half hours. The only thing that compares is an epic NHL playoff game that goes four overtimes, keeping fans up into early hours.
The difference is neither Djokovic or Nadal had an extended period off. Aside from a brief rain delay before they closed the roof at Melbourne Park, the two combatants only used changeovers to replenish energy burnt. Some games take forever to complete due to the ferocity of the points. It’s those that go to multiple deuces and see groundstroke for groundstroke matched along with running fit for a marathon that mesmerize tennis fans. Beside the physical toll it takes, there’s also the mental battle as well which see both players go through peaks and valleys. For two straight sets, the defending champion from Serbia had the No.2 ranked Spaniard on the ropes, pinning him six feet behind the baseline with heavy forehands and backhands struck with such force and precision that it was a miracle Nadal got most back. Having beaten Rafa in six straight finals, Nole had the mental edge. Serve big and go for broke, often to Nadal’s backhand where the errors have come. If not, then a short reply allowed Djoker to pounce as he did with a thumping forehand up the line to clinch an easy third set.
Would Nadal wilt under all the pressure? He’d lost to Djokovic at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open after defeating Roger Federer at the French. Federer did him a huge favor last year, ending Djokovic’s 43-match win streak with a tremendous semifinal triumph to reach the final at Roland Garros. Speaking of Federer, he hasn’t won a slam since the 2010 Australian Open- meaning that either Nadal (2 Frenches, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) or Djokovic (2 Australians, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) have shared the last eight. Rafa beat his top rival in four sets by again outbattling Federer, who blew a set and break lead. Another chink in the armor of the all-time winningest grand slam champion who still holds the record with 16. As Roger hits his 30′s, the question lingers whether he can add one more with Djokovic No.1 in the world while Nadal chases much like he did with Federer. Toss Andy Murray into the mix, who only took Djokovic five sets before falling in another crazy semifinal, and that’s three younger players who all pose a threat to the Maestro.
Sometimes, when you’re back’s against the wall, you let go. Djokovic was able to do that against Federer down match point at their memorable U.S. Open semifinal last Fall. The sound of that return winner crosscourt still can be heard along with a wild eruption from a mostly pro-Federer Arthur Ashe swayed by Novak to lend him support. Federer was never the same in body language and mind, allowing the more determined player to pull off the comeback. It’s what Nole does best. If he’s not overpowering opponents with unbelievable shots off full out sprints, Djoker is causing chaos with the best return in the game, constantly applying pressure. Andre Agassi was the standard when it came to returning with only Connors better. Djokovic might already be better than Andre. He’ll turn 25 later this year and now has gone from one major to five in a year. Amazing how things change. The confidence with which he plays with allows him to believe he can pull out any match no matter the pressure. Even if his legs start to weaken as was the case Sunday night, Nole is able to find that extra gear.
In the previous six losses, Nadal was unable to push back against Djokovic. He never put him in a vulnerable position. However, his focus was incredible during a tight fourth set where he needed to hold serve every time. While Novak held much easier, Rafa’s games were a struggle but never more so than when he was love-40 with basically three match points for Djokovic. One foul up and it was curtains as ESPN team Chris Fowler, Patrick McEnroe and Brad Gilbert concluded. Instead of giving in, there was Rafa fighting with that warrior’s spirit that makes him such a crowd pleaser. Running down shots and then ripping an inside out forehand just out of Djokovic’s reach to ward off a second break chance, followed by a surprising backhand down the line that wrong footed the defending champ. Nadal saved all four break points by elevating his game. He served bigger and went for his shots. Something that hadn’t happened enough against the man we call Djoker. Only there’s nothing to joke about following one of the greatest seasons in tennis history.
The thing that made you love Rafa’s fight was his spirit, pumping his fists after every big point won, which brought the crowd into it. It would’ve been easier to just cave into Novak’s pressure. Nobody plays a more aggressive and electrifying style. The shots he pulls off border on insanity. If one had caught any of his five set epic against the equally shot making Murray, you would’ve been tired just watching. The angles both men found were jaw dropping. Nadal is the same way, able to run down would be winners and rip that forehand for his own like he again did to Federer at crucial moments. Djokovic kept pounding the ball to each side, forcing Rafa to scramble the entire fourth set only to see them returned with incredible pace. In the tiebreak, Novak had a 5-3 minibreak lead and was two points away from avoiding the climatic final set. But a resilient Rafa wasn’t ready to die, coming back to win the last four points, including a wild miss from Djokovic that was forced due to all the hustle.
When you watch these two play, there really isn’t much that separates them. Both do an awful lot of running to hit the extra shot. But Djokovic is more consistent at continuing to up the ante. Nadal flattened out his backhand more down the stretch but any time he left that slice backhand short, it was punished. Still, there was Rafa in position to finally beat Novak. He finally had gotten into a fifth set. Unchartered territory when they played. When Nadal broke Djokovic for 4-2, the crowd went wild thinking the obvious. It looked like Rafa would finally prevail. And really, it was his match to win or lose at that point. Djokovic had been broken and looked the worse for wear.
Only an amazing thing happened. A miscue from Nadal proved critical. Leading 30-15 in the seventh game with a chance to consolidate the break, Rafa missed a routine backhand wide with Djokovic toast. Nole had hustled to get one more shot over the net for Nadal and sometimes, that kinda yeoman effort pays off. We saw it on a Novak errant overhead moments later. However, it was Nadal who had an open court and missed the backhand down the line. With the crowd not realizing it, the correct call was made. Even if a desperate Rafa challenged. Replays confirmed a rarity. That a linesman got it right with the ball three inches wide. The point allowed Djokovic to breathe. He used the momentum to take the next two points and break back. Something which was a common theme in his win in New York City last September. Nadal never put him away. If he makes that shot, who knows. It really might’ve been a different outcome.
Given new life, Djokovic held easily for four all and then Nadal replied with his own hold for 5-4. But with the pressure squarely on his shoulders, Novak did his part to again level it five apiece. That’s when he turned up the heat one last time to break Rafa for 6-5. No matter how out of it he looks, you can never count out Djokovic. He pulled the same act against Federer. The man has an incredible hunger to win. He wants to prove he’s the best. If ever there was a testament to it, it came that final game. Nadal didn’t quit. Instead, he had a break point to once again get back on serve. But Djokovic saved it and then pointed to his chest and said a prayer which probably was, ‘I can do it. Please let me end this.‘ It was amusing. Nadal then got a bad break on a net cord which killed his cross court backhand from staying in, setting up championship point.
One final time, Djokovic dialed up a big serve up the tee that had a short reply from Nadal, allowing Novak to rip one more forehand winner to finally end one of the greatest matches ever. FIVE HOURS FIFTY THREE MINUTES!
A triumphant Djokovic fell flat on his back before ripping his shirt off and running to his cheering section that included long-term girlfriend Jelena Ristic. Some high fives were exchanged with his coach and team that have helped turn around his career from one hit wonder to best in the world. Pretty cool. Even cooler (well not really) was how exhausted both men were while the ceremony was going on. Each using the net to rest their legs with both on the verge of collapsing before the Australian Open team supplied chairs and large Evian water bottles. It really was bizarre. Still, they weren’t about to miss tennis legend Rod Laver, who presented them with their rewards. For Nadal, a runner’s up crown that he could be proud of while for Djokovic, another large trophy to add to his collection.
Despite being weary, both made nice speeches with each paying the other proper respect for the memorable match they had just played. A new rivalry has been born. Even if it’s been all Djokovic lately, this was the kinda day where there were no losers. Only winners, which would make Gene Hackman’s classic Norman Dale Hoosiers character proud. Maybe we’ll finally get Rafa vs Nole at the French. If only it weren’t so far away. For now, every tennis fan can be proud.