The Australian Open final was an incredible match - and here's why.
A match for history
Five hours, 53 minutes for one match: the longest in a Grand Slam final and a fight between two of the toughest minds in the tennis history, men who went beyond their limits before Novak Djokovic eventually prevailed in this thriller.
Average level of play
The match was so enthralling because of the scenario, the drama and commitment of both players - not for the level of tennis they reached. They were better in the last US Open final: Spaniard Nadal played very short all match, and his Serbian opponent was not able to take advantage of this enough. Rafa was far below the level he reached during the matches against Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer - he realised how important this match was for his season and career. He was not able to start it with a good balance between aggression and stress, and as a consequence he was defensive right from the start and played far from his baseline. After three sets, he was spending four per cent of his time inside the court, whereas the figure was 34 per cent for the Serbian. He played short, down the middle too often, and tried to protect himself more than hurt his opponent. During the first three sets he wasn't moving well, as if he was overcome by the pressure of the event. This predictability helped Djokovic to be one shot ahead all the time.
Under stress, weaknesses are more obvious: his depth of shots was very worrying during this match with so many balls landing in the serving squares. His backhand was limited once again and he kept trying to change the diagonal in order to avoid being attacked on his weaker side - but his lack of deep shots saw him crushed by the Djokovic backhand. He was always defending because his opponent often used this chance to turn around his backhand. Also, his second serve was a gift for Novak, who is very efficient in this situation. His position, too far from the baseline, saw him become a victim of the cross-court shots and drop shots sent by Djokovic.
Admiring the bravery
His first serve saved him during this final - and he ended with a 67 per cent proportion of first serves in, with 66 per cent of points won behind this serve. With this exception, the Mallorcan suffered greatly and, without his amazing courage and will, the final would have been over in four sets for Djokovic. Once more, Rafa showed amazing fighting abilities and great heart - more than any other player I have seen.
What we learnt
Although the match wasn't 100 per cent satisfying regarding the level of play, we did learn a lot from it. During the semi-final against Andy Murray, Djokovic was dominated for long periods; in the final, he committed a lot of unforced errors and didn't play his best tennis. So Novak showed he was able to win under any circumstances, and even against the top players. The Serbian is continuing in his invincible mode, because he has now won four out of the last five Grand Slams. He is putting his mark on 2012 just as he did early in 2011. It's tough for Nadal, because it is now seven losses in a row against Djokovic in finals. He seemed to be getting closer to the Serbian - but if we consider that Nole wasn't at his best during this match, that now changes. Novak has sent a clear message to all the players: he's still the boss. The level of fitness he displays, his mental strength and determination to win should give his rivals something to think about. This match is proof that someone can win a Grand Slam final without playing amazing tennis - but through sheer effort. All players, and especially the French ones, should ask themselves if they have this kind of fight inside them - and then start to work towards it.
The next battle
Rafa and Nole will face each other again this season - perhaps several times. What should Rafa remember from this encounter? That it was won by the more aggressive, creative and dictating player. He must also add greater variety to his game: he always plays in the same areas on the return, his backhand nearly always down the line to change the diagonal, his forehand too often crossed and his slice on serve too often to Novak's backhand. He will also have to improve his second serve. But we should praise Novak Djokovic who, while playing in the same period as two of the greatest champions of all time — Rafa and Roger — has come to dominate the Tour. He now has five Grand Slam titles, and will certainly not stop there.
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