Last year, Novak Djokovic demonstrated that at his very best, he was the most dangerous and dominant player in the game today. This year at Melbourne Park, he showed that he's that same grim reaper even when he's not in the same tip-top form.
This might seem like an odd way to describe Djokovic's win over his rival Rafael Nadal, given that the match was the longest final in Grand Slam history (five hours, 53 minutes), and that Nadal found himself serving for a 5-2 lead in the fifth set. But the reality is that it took an astonishing patch of inspiring tennis by Nadal to avoid a painful loss in four sets. He found a remarkable third (or was it fourth?) wind while serving at two-sets-to-one down and trailing 3-4, 0-40 to launch this match from the realm of the routine into the history books. He still fell short at the end: The final score was 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5.
Somewhere, Roger Federer, who knows what Nadal must be feeling, is smiling. And somewhere, Andy Murray is feeling vindicated - it was Murray who, just 48 hours earlier, had forced Djokovic to spend four hours and 50 minutes on court in order to earn his place opposite Nadal. By contrast, Nadal had a relative breeze in the semis against Federer.
Djokovic's fitness for a potentially long five-setter was an obvious issue before the final, so it was particularly distressing for partisans when he started slowly and lost the first set, even if Nadal himself wasn't exactly lighting up the Melbourne night with his performance. But Djokovic has shown, time and again, that he can be at his most dangerous when he appears most vulnerable to fatigue. (You wonder, did he study all those tapes of Pete Sampras, moping around during matches that he inevitably went on to win going away?)
On Sunday night, Nadal's crucial error appeared to be his willingness to retreat into a relatively defensive mode once he won that tug-of-war first set. Although it would make a certain amount of sense to not even deal with the first three-and-a-half sets of this clash (because of that Nadal pivotal turnaround in set four), it helps because it reveals some of the patterns that would impact the outcome.
At periods during this match - including midway through the final set, when it looked as if Djokovic's legs would go out from under him for lack of strength - Nadal retreated into a defensive mode, receiving serve from well back of the service line, rallying from yards behind the baseline. It's his default strategy, and it works against everyone else, including Federer.
Nadal's inability to muster an offensive mindset on a more consistent basis hurt him dearly, even though he generally made good on his promise to be more aggressive with his forehand, and the fact that he unveiled a new tactic, serving into Djokovic's body. Nadal enjoyed good success with that serve at different points, yet Djokovic spent long periods of the match getting deep into Nadal's serve, mostly because of Nadal's innate caution.
It appeared that Nadal was sunk when he fell behind love-40 in that eighth game of the fourth set; it seemed like the end of a long, seemingly inevitable slide during which Djokovic punished Nadal severely for not moving further into the court to challenge him. But at 0-40, Nadal uncorked a string of five straight points, including an ace and two service winners, to stay in the hunt at 4-all. When he won the ensuing tiebreaker, the complexion of the match changed radically.
That comeback was the first real turning point of the match; the second occurred in the fifth set, with Nadal serving ahead 4-2. In that game, Nadal was up 30-15, having won 11 of his previous 12 first-serve points while playing a more aggressive, forward-moving game. Nadal hit a poor semi-drop volley on the next point, and Djokovic got to the ball and pushed it back. Nadal had a great look at a backhand pass but he shoved it just wide. Suddenly, Nadal found himself in that familiar, nervous-making place, 30-all. A pair of forehand errors by Nadal, the latter off the service return, got Djokovic back on even terms.
As for the rest of it ... Nadal grew defensive, positionally, but he hit the ball nearly as well as Djokovic. The ensuing rallies were both compelling and almost painful to watch, as the men grimaced and fist-pumped their way into and well beyond the five-and-a-half hour mark. Nadal fell behind 15-40 in the 11th game, and he was good enough only to wipe away one of those ensuing break points. But an error of the backhand side by Nadal gave Djokovic the final break.
Fittingly enough, Nadal had one salvo left. He fought back from 0-30 down in the last game, and reached break point. But Djokovic drilled a cross-court backhand to elicit a forehand error to get to deuce and, two points later, Djokovic was lying on his back on the floor of Rod Laver Arena, champion again.