Now a five-time Grand Slam champion, Novak Djokovic screams in triumph after surviving his greatest test from top rival Rafael Nadal.
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After five sets and six grueling hours, both Rafael Nadal (left) and Djokovic had little strength to celebrate their history-making match.
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Djokovic shined brightest Down Under for the third time in his career - in 2012, he next sets his sights on Roland Garros.
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By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Even if Novak Djokovic laid down on the court once more after fending off another Rafael Nadal forehand blast in the Australian Open final, his reputation would not have been damaged, and he could have walked away from a record-setting 5-hour, 53-minute clash a co-hero with the Spaniard. Yet after losing a 31-stroke opening point of the ninth game of the fifth set, when he flew a forehand long and collapsed in sheer exhaustion, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and began to fight again.
A handful of games later, he limped away with his fifth Grand Slam title in a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory to win his third Australian Open title. He called it his "greatest victory ever."
"Right now, yes," he said. "Wimbledon is right up there next to this one because it's just the tournament that I always dreamed of winning. But this one I think comes out on the top because just the fact that we played almost six hours is incredible. It's the longest final in the history of all Grand Slams, and just to hear that fact is making me cry, really. I'm very proud just to be part of this history, part of the elite of the players that have won this tournament for several times, and I was very flattered to be playing in front of Rod Laver, in front of the all-time greats, and in front of 15,000 people that stayed until 1:30 a.m. It's incredible, really."
No one is supposed to be able to outlast the sport's most celebrated strongman, the seemingly inexhaustible Nadal. Yet Djokovic not only has taken him out seven times in a row (and in three Grand Slam finals at 2011 Wimbledon, the 2011 US Open and now the 2012 Australian Open), but he pulled off a feat that few thought that he was capable of: Winning a war of attrition against the General Patton of tennis, playing this match two days after he need 4 hours, 50 minutes to best Andy Murray in the semis.
At times in the fifth set, his legs shook with small cramps. Like Nadal, Djokovic didn’t seem to know the concept of "quit" and kept swinging away, hitting as hard as he could, trying to show that better offense and equally good movement can best a hardcore defense.
Like his rival would later say, Djokovic reveled in the suffering.
"You are in pain, you suffer, you know that you're trying to activate your legs, you're trying to push yourself another point, just one more point, one more game," Djokovic said. "You're going through so much suffering. Your toes are bleeding. Everything is just outrageous, but you're still enjoying that pain."
After a sub-par first set, Djokovic had taken charge in the second and third sets and was dictating to his foe time and time again. In the fourth set, by playing more aggressive, Nadal began to make a huge push, and after Djokovic could not close out the tiebreaker despite holding a 5-2 lead, he seemed to be in trouble.
Djokovic went down 4-2 in the fifth set, and the announcers were already preparing the accolades for the great Spaniard. But he pushed back hard, driving Nadal backward with laser-like groundstrokes, serving big and returning beautifully. He broke Nadal back to 4-3 by forcing him into forehand errors, held strong is his own service games and, then at 5-5, broke him again when he saw him push a backhand into the net.
The now five-time Grand Slam champion is arguably the best return of server since Andre Agassi, slapping back seemingly impossible serves deep in the court, sometimes for outright winners and others just to get his nose in front of points.
"Is something unbelievable how he returns. His return probably is one of the best of the history," Nadal said. "I never played against a player who's able to return like this. Almost every time."
Djokovic smoothly won the contest in the next game, belting a huge serve and finishing with an inside-out forehand winner. He ripped his shirt off, tensed his muscles, walked over towards the friends’ box -- and roared.
It was how he managed to pull himself up off the concrete, after that marathon 31-stroke rally in the ninth game of the fifth set, which was the turning point -- when he showed Nadal he was not going away.
"A thousand thoughts going through the mind," Djokovic said of his time on the ground. "Trying to separate the right from wrong, trying to prioritize the next point and taking it step by step. We live for these matches. We're trying to dedicate all our life to this sport to come to the situation where we play six-hour match for a Grand Slam title."
Since he led Serbia to its first Davis Cup title 14 months ago, Djokovic has been on top of the world. He's won three straight majors and four out of the last five Grand Slams, three on hard courts and one on grass.
Now Djokovic will try and do what Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Nadal were unable to do and only Laver was able to pull off in the Open Era: Win four straight majors. It will be a long buildup to Roland Garros in late May, but he's planning to arrive there strong and in a good frame of mind. After his victory on Sunday night over Nadal, his lungs, legs and heart will not be in question.
"I want to get the first final at least in Paris," Djokovic said. "I have never been in finals there, and I have a feeling that I'm ready this year to achieve that."
Mattek-Sands Wins first Slam in Mixed
American Bethanie Mattek-Sands won her first Grand Slam title when she and partner Horia Tecau of Romania took down Elena Vesnina and Leander Paes, 6-3, 5-7, 10-3 (match tiebreak). Former U.S. Fed Cupper Mattek-Sands was forced to take the Fall of 2011 off due to shoulder problems, not sure how she would hold up during the Aussie summer. The 26-year-old didn't even start serving until two weeks before she arrived Down Under, so even if the crown was in mixed, she was quite pleased.
"Feels awesome," she said. "First finals, obviously, and it was a cool feeling. I wasn't too nervous. I just kind of trusted my partner and felt good out there. It feels pretty good to have a trophy. Get our picture up in the hallway next year. It's pretty cool."