Last year, Novak Djokovic demonstrated that at his very best, he was the most dangerous and dominant player in the game today. This year at Melbourne Park, he showed that he's that same grim reaper even when he's not in the same tip-top form.
This might seem like an odd way to describe Djokovic's win over his rival Rafael Nadal, given that the match was the longest final in Grand Slam history (five hours, 53 minutes), and that Nadal found himself serving for a 5-2 lead in the fifth set. But the reality is that it took an astonishing patch of inspiring tennis by Nadal to avoid a painful loss in four sets. He found a remarkable third (or was it fourth?) wind while serving at two-sets-to-one down and trailing 3-4, 0-40 to launch this match from the realm of the routine into the history books. He still fell short at the end: The final score was 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5.
Somewhere, Roger Federer, who knows what Nadal must be feeling, is smiling. And somewhere, Andy Murray is feeling vindicated — it was Murray who, just 48 hours earlier, had forced Djokovic to spend four hours and 50 minutes on court in order to earn his place opposite Nadal. By contrast, Nadal had a relative breeze in the semis against Federer.
Djokovic's fitness for a potentially long five-setter was an obvious issue before the final, so it was particularly distressing for partisans when he started slowly and lost the first set, even if Nadal himself wasn't exactly lighting up the Melbourne night with his performance. But Djokovic has shown, time and again, that he can be at his most dangerous when he appears most vulnerable to fatigue. (You wonder, did he study all those tapes of Pete Sampras, moping around during matches that he inevitably went on to win going away?)
On Sunday night, Nadal's crucial error appeared to be his willingness to retreat into a relatively defensive mode once he won that tug-of-war first set. Although it would make a certain amount of sense to not even deal with the first three-and-a-half sets of this clash (because of that Nadal pivotal turnaround in set four), it helps because it reveals some of the patterns that would impact the outcome.
At periods during this match — including midway through the final set, when it looked as if Djokovic's legs would go out from under him for lack of strength — Nadal retreated into a defensive mode, receiving serve from well back of the service line, rallying from yards behind the baseline. It's his default strategy, and it works against everyone else, including Federer.
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