Australian Open

Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal. Australian Open 2012

The Greatest Matches In Australian Open History #4

We look back at the greatest matches in Australian Open history rolls on. In case you missed them, read again on our previous matches:

10. Rafael Nadal vs Grigor Dimitrov 2017

9. Marat Safin vs Andre Agassi 2004

8. Younes El Aynaoui vs Andy Roddick 2003

7. Andre Agassi vs Pete Sampras 2000

6. Novak Djokovic vs Stan Wawrinka 2013

5. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal 2017

Without further delay, we present to you #4 on our list . . .

Tennis matches are, often foolishly, likened to gladiatorial battles. While both require significant amounts of exertion, one is noticeably absent of the barbarism, brutality and war scars that permeate the other. Yet, in the pantheon of great tennis matches, there is one such encounter which makes the comparison refreshingly opposite: look no further than the titanic 2012 Australian Open final, contested by the Gumby-like Serb Novak Djokovic and the swashbuckling Spaniard, Rafael Nadal.

Fittingly, the match is the longest in the tournament's history, lasting a sickening 5 hours and 53 minutes, won by Djokovic, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5. The two were so depleted that, during the trophy ceremony, they were granted the courtesy of sitting on chairs! Lest any reader accuses me of hyperbole, take a gander at how many superlatives were heaped upon the match by some tennis luminaries:

“By far the greatest match I ever saw. Incredible performances from both guys” – Pete Sampras

“I think this was the best tennis match ever in the men's game” – Andre Agassi

“It showed what it takes to beat this top group of players. Truly fantastic match to watch. One of the greatest I've ever seen” – Bjorn Borg

This contest, much like the 2009 Australian Open final, was won by the man playing the later, more gruelling semifinal, as Djokovic prevailed over Murray, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 7-5 in 4 hours, 50 minutes in the penultimate match. A week before the event, Nadal was fighting a bum knee which cast doubt over his participation in the tournament. Three weeks later, he was in the final, salivating at the chance to beat Djokovic, who had won their previous six encounters, including the two preceding major finals. Djokovic ended his 2011 year on an injury lull himself but was looking to consolidate his dominance at his pet slam. Without a shadow of a doubt, they were the run-away. No's 1 and 2 in the world.

As should be expected from Nadal, many positives were derived from the loss. Nadal's venerated down-the-line forehand, missing for much of 2011, was back with a vengeance for parts of the match. Djokovic, growing comfortable over the previous year with the pattern of going cross-court with his solid backhand to Nadal's forehand, was thrown in for a loop with Rafa's fearhand resurgence, and this carried over to the clay-court season, where Nadal won all three of their bouts.

For much of the match, Djokovic was flummoxed and at times intimidated by the Nadal forehand, opting to attack his backhand more than he did in 2011, failing to pounce on some of the weak slices his strategy elicited. Rafa, to his credit, served smartly, throwing in body serves with great success. This final went down to the wire, with the match arguably on Rafa's racket at 4-2 in the fifth. Following '09, the Australian Open has been Nadal's white whale, along with the World Tour Finals.

Full Match Replay

Here is a video link of the match in its entirety:

Set 1

With the first three games in the blistering Melbourne heat being relatively non-descript, the matches first long rally occurred at 2-1, a 23-stroke marathon culminating in a fantastic Nadal overhead to go up 30-15. After securing the hold to level at 2-2, Rafa pushes the next game to Deuce before showcasing his otherworldly defence and passing shots.

After Djokovic wrestles back the advantage in the game, Nadal is the beneficiary of some errant play as Novak hits three errors in a row, missing a backhand to go down a break. Appropriately, we get the first racket throw and shirt-change of the match. Djokovic attempts to climb out of this early hole, earning himself a breakpoint before a timely wide serve and a booming forehand down the line from Nadal bring the game to Deuce.

Rafa snuffs another breakpoint, and he consolidates his break, jumping to a 4-2 lead. Djokovic bounces back by holding at 15, and with that, over 40 minutes have passed; only seven games to show for it!

Now, it is Djokovic's turn to benefit from loose ground-stroking from Nadal, and a 22-shot rally highlights his subsequent service game, where he holds. Suddenly, Novak is within a game of the first set, at 5-4. Not to be outdone, Rafa jumps out to a 40-0 lead when serving to stay in the set, finishing the game by cranking a dynamic forehand winner. With Djokovic casting somewhat of a forlorn figure, Nadal breaks to serve for the set, and wraps it up after a whopping 80 minutes, peppering 12 forehand winners to impose his will on the match.

Set 2

After two aces help steer Nadal out of trouble at 1-1 in the second, Djokovic finally goes up a break to the good in the fourth game, aided by some deft net-play. Seemingly beaten, Rafa goes down 1-4, and 2-5, as the EuroSport commentators begin to lament his lack of aggression.

At 5-3, Djokovic thumps a mighty return to hand him his first set point, before Rafa, true to form, fights back to win the point, and the game. 5-4 now, and Djokovic is serving for the set, where he races to a 40-15 lead. Inevitably the set must be his now. Alas, it was not to be (yet).

An unforced error on the backhand wing, a big Nadal forehand, a sly passing shot at Deuce and a double fault from Novak helps Nadal level the set, with four points won on the trot! Djokovic is looking apoplectic, having had multiple chances to close this set. After some tense play, it is 30-30 on Rafa's serve, when Nole brandishes his patented backhand for a winner to bring up a fourth set point. In a rare moment of charity, Nadal loses his nerve on the second offering and double-faults the set away. 1-1.

Set 3

Well, in a match heretofore characterized by momentum swings, the third set was an exhibition in greatness by the Serb. Some crude stats to demonstrate the one-sided nature of this stanza: 13 winners were struck by Djokovic and only two from the racquet of his Spanish rival. Djokovic won 53.3% of his return points, Rafa 11.1%. A showing that was truly beyond reproach in every aspect of the game was concluded with a booming running forehand winner down the line. Set 6-2 Djokovic. I daresay that it was even more lopsided than the scoreline would indicate.

Set 4

The first six games of the fourth set are the least eventful of this roller-coaster match, as both players navigate through the minefields set by each other to avoid any breakpoints.

Feeling that the finish line was drawing ever so close, Djokovic races to a quick 0-30 lead in the seventh game, then smacks a searing winner down the line to summon three breakpoints.

Here is, arguably, when the match reaches a crescendo, with Nadal thwarting Djokovic by producing perhaps some of the most clutch tennis ever witnessed. At 0-40, Rafa stretches Djokovic with a solid wide serve, which is directed cross-court with interest to Nadal's forehand. After a tense back-and-forth, Nadal dances around his backhand to hit a penetrating inside-out forehand deep in the court. Djokovic does well to scurry to the deuce-court to retrieve the ball, but the reply was not good enough, and Nadal blasts another inside-out forehand that flies past Djokovic's out-stretched racket. At 15-40, Rafa attacks with another wide serve, as Djokovic is beaten for pace and sends the ball flying long.

With a third breakpoint on offer, Nadal yet again deploys a wide serve to Djokovic's backhand on his second serve. Proving for the umpteenth time that the Spaniard's backhand is incredibly difficult to attack, Nadal weathers the Djokovic onslaught and hits a well-disguised backhand down the line which wrong-foots Djokovic and brings the game to Deuce. Nadal joyfully leaps in the air.

Nadal's celebration, if not having a galvanizing effect, certainly did not derail his game and he went on to hold serve after an ace and a forced error from the Djokovic racket. 4-4. At this point, one would be forgiven for thinking that these boys cannot be deflated, yet still, fans had to wonder if this would put a dent in Djokovic's self-belief.

Instead, he holds his next service game to love, hitting a Sampras-like running forehand as he raises his index finger to his box as if to say: “one more”. One more game, indeed. Or, plenty more, because the next three service games went by without so much as a breakpoint being generated. Tiebreak time.

After exchanging mini-breaks early on, Djokovic obtains another one to streak ahead 4-3. The next point featured a hearty dose of forehand broadsides, with Nadal being run ragged before being put out of his misery by an inside-in forehand.

At 5-3, on his serve, Djokovic yet again seeks to close the door on this match, but a 16-shot rally ending with a wide forehand gave Nadal more pep in his step. 5-4, back on serve. An unforced error from Djokovic and an unreturned serve from Nadal gave him a set point.

Nadal seizes the set at the first time of asking, falling to his knees in celebration like a man who had won the match.

Set 5

After almost five hours of engrossing tennis, this match was becoming recognized as a classic in real-time. With Nadal serving first, he hits his signature (winning) shot of the game at 15-all of the opening game, a startlingly good inside-out forehand clocked at 162 KPH, done while pedalling backwards to the doubles alley of the deuce-court. He goes on to seal the game at 30, firing an ace.

Down 2-3 on his serve, Djokovic got to 30-15 before the wheels came loose. In danger of letting this match slip away, Nole hit three consecutive unforced errors to give Nadal a commanding 4-2 lead. Now things were looking dire for ND. To his fortune, the next few minutes were among the most heart-breaking of Rafa's distinguished career.

Up 30-15, Nadal started the point passively, coughing up weak mid-court balls as Djokovic followed a foray to the net with a mediocre cross-court forehand volley. With so much air on it, Nadal got there with time to spare and had the entire Ad-court open. With plenty of room to work with, he decides to play his backhand close to the line, missing wide by mere millimetres. Djokovic, who had given up on the point, had new life. Instead of Nadal being a point away from a 5-2 lead, it is 30-30, and Djokovic forces two errors from Nadal to bring the set back on serve!

To put into perspective how costly this gaffe was: Tennis Abstract, a gem of a tennis analytics site, would peg the Win Probability for a player up 4-2, 30-15 on serve in the final set of a best-of-five sets match at 89.4%. Granted, these are standardized odds for two players of exactly equal abilities, so all of the existing variables are not taken into account, but still! Had Nadal made this rudimentary passing shot, the standardized odds shoot up to 92.3%.

Likely wary of another letdown, Djokovic holds his next service game at 15 to tie the decider. The opening point at 4-4 is yet another testament to the punishing nature of this match. A 31-stroke rally, which Nadal won via a Djokovic backhand error, leaves the Serb a collapsed mess, sucking air with his back hugging the blue Plexicushion courts.

Nadal dutifully holds at love and is now one game away from winning his second Australian Open title. Djokovic holds his next service game at 15, profiting from three Nadal unforced errors. 5-5. If the first point of Nadal's service game was any indication, Djokovic was not out of the woods just yet. A characteristically long rally was capped off by another down-the-line forehand scorcher from Rafa, after a DTL forehand of his own from Novak. Anything you can do, I can do better.

In the words of the eccentric tennis broadcaster Robbie Koenig, spank you very much! The rest of the game was comparatively banal, except for the fact that Nadal, on wobbly legs, hit a spate of errors to get broken. Now, Djokovic gives himself a chance to do what Nadal denied him of an hour earlier: serve for the match. In one last act of resistance, Nadal has a look on the return at 30-40, saved by a pacey cross-court backhand from Djokovic.

After Nadal's backhand clips the tape and flies wide, Djokovic earns his first match point. It took him a mere 5 hours and 52 minutes to procure it, and many appeals to the heavens as once more, Djokovic utters “please God, help me” in his native Serbian. His prayers answered, Djokovic unleashes a formidable first serve down the T which catches Nadal off guard, and he finally puts the match away with a forehand winner. Much shirt-ripping was to be done by the man who had now won the last three Majors, spanning back to 2011 Wimbledon.

The trophy ceremony, as alluded to in the beginning, provided a glimpse into just how exhausted these legends were:

In what was to be a year of classic matches, the Australian Open final probably takes the cake for stupefying skirmishes in 2012. Where do you think this match ought to be ranked in the annals of great Australian Open clashes? Give us your feedback in the comment section below.

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