Published January 29, 2012
MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic ripped off his shirt and let out a primal scream, flexing his torso like a prize fighter after a desperate, last-round knockout.
He'd been flat on his back four games earlier, seemingly down and out after more than 5 1/2 hours, after losing another long, exhausting point to Rafael Nadal.
In an Australian Open final that truly qualified as epic, Djokovic reached into his deepest inner reserves and summoned enough energy to overcome Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 to win his fifth Grand Slam title and third in a row.
The riveting duel ended with Djokovic hitting a forehand winner after 5 hours, 53 minutes of play -- the longest Grand Slam singles final in the history of professional tennis.
"It was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies," Djokovic said. "We made history tonight and unfortunately there couldn't be two winners."
At 1:37 a.m. Monday on Rod Laver Arena, the 24-year-old Djokovic joined Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Nadal -- four greats of the sport -- as the only men who have won three consecutive majors since the Open Era began in 1968. And Nadal was his vanquished opponent in all three.
As the players waited for the trophy presentation, Nadal leaned on the net, while Djokovic sat on his haunches. Eventually, a nearby official took pity and they were given chairs and a bottle of water each.
Nadal held his composure during the formalities, and even opened his speech with with a lighthearted one-liner.
"Good morning, everybody," he said, noting that the tournament had entered a third week.
The 73-year-old Laver witnessed the emotional match from his seat in the stands, just behind the baseline in the stadium named in his honor. Nadal saw it from closer range.
After hugging Nadal at the net, Djokovic tore off his sweat-soaked black shirt and headed toward his supporters in the players' box, pumping his arms repeatedly as he roared. It was raw emotion he couldn't contain. He walked over to his girlfriend, his coach and the rest of his support team and banged on the advertising signs at the side of the court.
"I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and matter of wanting this more than maybe other player in the certain point," Djokovic said. "It's just incredible effort. You're in pain, you're in suffer. You're trying to activate your legs. You're going through so much suffering your toes are bleeding. Everything is just outrageous, but you're still enjoying that pain."
The match was full of spectacular rallies and amazing gets. Djokovic finished with 57 winners, along with 69 unforced errors. Nadal had 44 winners, as well as 71 unforced errors.
Laver was part of the 15,000-strong crowd in the arena when the players walked on at 7:30 p.m. Sunday to flip the coin and start the warmup. He was still there, along with most of the crowd, after 2 a.m. for the trophy presentations.
Djokovic called it the most special of his five Grand Slam wins.
"This one I think comes out on the top because just the fact that we played almost six hours is incredible, incredible," he said. "I think it's probably the longest finals 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."
It went so long because Nadal refused to yield. He kept coming back valiantly when he seemed to be struggling in the second and third sets. He desperately didn't want to be the first man to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals -- or extend his losing streak in finals to seven against Djokovic, who beat him for the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and took his No. 1 ranking last year.
The Spaniard found a way to stay in the contest for almost every point, sprinting from one side of the court to the other chasing down balls and making Djokovic work extra-time for the victory. In the end, the outcome was the same as his previous six finals against Djokovic.
Nadal thought his win in the 2008 final against Federer was the best match he's played, but still gave Sunday's match a top place in his personal rankings.
"This one was very special," he said. "But I really understand that was a really special match, and probably a match that's going to be in my mind not because I lost, no, because the way that we played."
Djokovic had his moments of near despair. He appeared to struggle for breath in his quarterfinal win over No. 5 David Ferrer and his five-set semifinal win over No. 4 Andy Murray. He blamed it on allergies, and he managed to control it better against Nadal.
Yet at times he looked exhausted.
When Nadal fended off three break points at 4-4 in the fourth set to win the game, spectators jumped to their feet and chanted "Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa!" Djokovic had lost the momentum. Play was stopped moments later when rain started to fall and a suddenly animated Nadal threw his arms up in disbelief and walked slowly back to his chair. The stadium roof was then closed.
Djokovic picked up his game after the 10-minute rain delay and his pockets of supporters waved their Serbian flags again and started their own competing chant of "Nole, Nole, Nole" -- inserting Djokovic's nickname where "Ole" belongs in the tune and rhythm of the Spanish football chant.
It wasn't enough to get him through the tiebreaker in the fourth set, though, when Nadal won the last four points to finish it in 88 minutes and force a fifth set. Nadal dropped to his knees on the baseline and pumped his arms at that point, celebrating as if he'd won the final. All he'd done was prolong it. This pair had never gone to five sets.
Just as he did during the first set, Djokovic took off a white shirt and replaced it with a black one.
It didn't seem to help immediately as he went down a break and a defeat loomed.
The match clock hit 5 hours with the score at two-sets all, and two-games apiece. Nadal won the next point and Djokovic started to stumble slightly, unsteady on his feet.
Nadal held that game without losing a point and then broke Djokovic for a 4-2 lead.
The turning point came in the next game, when Nadal had an open court and Djokovic in trouble but knocked a backhand volley wide down the line. He challenged the call, but the ball was clearly out. Instead of being up 40-15 and one point from a 5-2 lead, the game score became 30-30.
Djokovic found energy again and got a break point with a backhand that forced an error from Nadal. He pounced on a Nadal second serve to convert the break as the match clock ticked to 5:15, confirming it as the longest match in the history of the Australian Open. Nadal had that record, at 5:14, in his five-set semifinal win over fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in 2009.
This match had already long surpassed Mats Wilander's win over Ivan Lendl at the 1988 U.S. Open, in 4:54, as the longest final in the terms of duration.
Djokovic started to look better physically and Nadal started to make some unforced errors, giving the Serbian some extra seconds between points to get his heavy breathing under control. After getting back on serve at 4-4, Djokovic kissed the crucifix around his neck twice.
With Nadal serving, the pair engaged in a 31-shot rally that the Spaniard finally won when Djokovic committed a backhand error. The Serb fell flat on his back on the court, fully stretched out, arms over his head, while Nadal doubled over on his side of the court, hands perched on his knees.
It appeared as if Djokovic was ready to throw in the towel, but he said he never thought about staying down.
"At that point I was just thinking of getting some air and trying to recover for next point," he said. "Thousand thoughts going through the mind. Trying to separate the right from wrong. Trying to prioritize the next point. I'm playing against one of the best players ever -- the player that is so mentally strong. He was going for everything or nothing."
When Djokovic got the break to go up 5-4, the Serbian fans jumped up with their flags and screamed while the rest of the crowd sat in stony silence.
After kissing the crucifix around his neck repeatedly in the later games, Djokovic openly prayed out loud and looked up for some divine intervention as he got within points of sealing his victory.
"I was trying find every possible help and energy that I possibly can," he said. "It paid off I guess."