There were phases of eerie silence at the Rod Laver Arena. Perhaps it was because a majority of the 20,000-plus crowd was rooting for Rafael Nadal – as his welcome to the court suggested— but mostly because their hero was being so comprehensively pulverised.
What was supposed to be a marathon, ended up being a sprint towards greatness by Novak Djokovic.
Playing with cold, surgical precision, the Serb executed a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Nadal in only two hours and four minutes. It was Djokovic’s third Grand Slam title in a row and a seventh Australian Open crown, helping him break the tie with Roger Federer and Roy Emerson at six championships apiece. Grand Slam No 15 for Djokovic also brought him within two of Nadal’s tally of majors.
“It’s one of the best, if not the best, matches I’ve played in a Grand Slam final,” Djokovic said.
His best took tennis to another level of perfection. In three sets, Djokovic made all of nine unforced errors and won 56 of 69 points on his serve. The Serb, we know, has one of the best return games, but he elevated it against the new and improved Nadal serve, winning 42% of the receiving points. He served eight aces, won 16 of the 18 net points and struck 34 winners. There was no piece of the bright blue court he didn’t own.
The one-man show was a quite a contrast to the attritional duel the two great rivals had scripted the last time they met in Melbourne. Nadal and Djokovic had contested the 2012 finals, an exhausting match with long rallies and small margins of error. The Serb had played Nadal at his own game of relentless defending and won in five hours and 53 minutes.
But there was no trading of body blows this Sunday.
Djokovic, who won 13 of the first 14 points, was neatly picking off Nadal from the back of the court. While most people struggle to fight off venomous, top-spin laden groundstrokes, especially the forehand, Djokovic, out of years of trial and error, flattened it out with ease. He peppered the Spaniard’s forehand, the stronger wing, with cannily angled backhand-cross-court shots till it broke down. Fifteen of the 28 unforced errors from Nadal came off that forehand. The Serb, meanwhile, looked invincible in the way he read the patterns of play and hit the spot of most discomfort for Nadal. He had the Spaniard on a string.
“Every professional athlete wants to be in the zone, where everything flows so effortlessly and you are executing automatically everything you are intending to execute,” said the 31-year-old Djokovic. “You don't need to think too much. I guess you're driven by some force that takes over you and you feel divine, you feel like in a different dimension.”
The two have contested 53 times now, more than any two players in history. And though Nadal was one of the roadblocks for Djokovic early on in his career, he has turned the head-to-head in the rivalry. The Serb has won five of the eight Grand Slam finals they have played and currently is 28-25 in the head-to-head record. The Serb, in fact, has a winning record over all his ‘Big 4’ rivals; he is 25-22 against Roger Federer and 25-11 against Andy Murray.
But as his recent dominance against Nadal suggests, no one else can get the Spaniard wrong-footed quite as often as Djokovic does. While his groundstrokes might not be the most powerful or aesthetically pleasing, they usually strike with a precision of a locked-in snipe. He changes direction effortlessly and can hit winners on the run, or stretch better than anywhere else. That scrambles Nadal’s algorithm, makes him take more risks and play less percentage tennis.
On Sunday, Nadal tested his elasticity on a couple of occasions, and Djokovic was able to bounce back from the rallies, hitting a deep, bruising shot when worst placed for it.
“I think he played fantastic,” said Nadal. “When he's playing that way, I think I needed something else. I was not able to have that extra 'thing' tonight. I played fantastic tennis during both weeks, but probably playing that well, I didn't suffer much. Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else... That's my feeling, to compete at this super high level.”
Many times in the game it was easy to forget that it was a final, between the world No 1 and 2, and not an exhibition performance players like Djokovic pull-off in the early rounds of Grand Slams against shell-shocked opponents.
But the post-elbow surgery Djokovic is that good.
In 2018, his Australian Open was done in the fourth round, when he lost to up-and-comer Hyeon Chung. About 12 months ago he underwent an elbow surgery and his tennis-playing future was in doubt. Mentally he seemed exhausted, bordering on indifferent. After completing his career Slam at the 2016 French Open, Djokovic failed to make a mark in the next seven.
A semi-final win over his old rival Nadal at Wimbledon seemed to do the trick. Having come through five sets against the Spaniard in a match that was played over two days, Djokovic found his range. He has now won 21 Grand Slam matches in a row, the last an absolute confirmation of his hold over men’s tennis.
Though Nadal had battled his own injury troubles coming into this Australian Open, he had raced through to the finals without dropping a set. Armed with a new serve and a more proactive game, Nadal had been ruthless. Till Sunday. Till Djokovic. Till his worst defeat in a Slam final.
On the eve of the match, Rod Laver, after whom the Australian Open centre court is named, had suggested that Djokovic would go on to beat the record for most majors. At 31, he’s the youngest of the Big 3. Federer, 37, has 20 Slams and Nadal, 32, has 17.
“When you look at the others, Novak and Rafa, I would think Novak will certainly (pass Federer),” the legendary Australian had said. “When you look at his age, and form winning the last two, I would say Djokovic can eclipse Roger.”
The Serb has won three of the last three and is now aiming to become the first player, since Laver, to hold all the four Slams for the second time in his career. The pace at which he’s going, and the intensity he’s playing at, no target looks unachievable.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 09:29:24 IST