Records are made to be broken, for players and writers alike. The longest match in Australian Open history led to the latest article filings that many of us here could remember. In my case, it wasn't even close. I hit "publish" on my post at 7:30 this morning and went to bed around 8:00, approximately the same time that Novak Djokovic himself finally called it a night-or day, or morning, or whatever it was at that point.
Last night's final between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal was a classic, but even before I left the pressroom there were already questions, discussions, meetings being called, to try to decide whether it was the greatest ever. My first answer is: No, it wasn't. My second answer is: That's no slight. Djokovic-Nadal was a notch below the 2008 Wimbledon men's final overall, and Rafa's previous longest-Aussie-match-ever, against Fernando Verdasco in the semis in 2009, was played at a higher level for longer. But last night's final was special because of the raw effort from both men, and because each showed his vulnerability and overcame it. In its brilliance and its flaws and its sportsmanship afterward, it was a human drama and a match that reminded us why we love sports.
This Aussie Open shouldn't have ended any other way. On both the men's and the women's sides, the year's first Slam didn't disappoint. The final weekend especially, with four excellent semifinals, a breakthrough performance from Victoria Azarenka, and the Melbourne Massacre between Djokovic and Nadal, was one we'll be mining thoroughly in our end-of-season wrap-ups in December.
For now, it's time for an end of tournament wrap-up-i.e., a snap judgment-on what we just saw.
He's bulletproof at the moment. Last year his drive to the title was machine-like - it was nine sets up, nine sets down from the quarters on. This year nothing came easily; his last two matches alone took more than 10 hours. Maybe it was the new expectations, maybe it was the return of the clogged nose, or maybe that's just how Djokovic is and will continue to be, but he needed, in the words of Rafael Nadal, to "suffer and struggle" this time before he could get it done. That he still got it done with back to back 7-5 in the fifth set marathon wins over players as good as Nadal and Andy Murray rates with the all-time, all-around efforts in tennis history. A+
If it had been Federer or Djokovic or Nadal who had blitzed their final-round opponent so convincingly, many of us would likely be calling Azarenka's 3 and 0 demolition of multiple Slam winner Maria Sharapova a peerless, all-time performance. Vika's triumph was, if nothing else, a shot in the arm for women's tennis. The tour gets a No. 1 player who can win the No. 1 events, and-knock on graphite-one who is in it for the long, consistent haul. Like Djokovic, this reformed hothead showed some weakness along the way, and then blew past it. Best image: Vika, at a key moment late in the first set of the final, taking a serve, drilling a backhand return deep and down the middle, and knocking off the next swing volley from mid-air. That's good tennis, and it might have saved the men an hour or two along the way. A+
I wrote at the start of the season that no matter what Rafa did or how well he played, he wouldn't be able to judge his progress until he met his master, Novak Djokovic. Now he's met him, and he almost beat him. While he could have done more, Nadal himself judged it to be a positive step. That's an issue for the future. What was special to me about last night was seeing Nadal after the final, sitting in a chair waiting for the stultifying pre-trophy speeches to finish, and thinking about all of the classic matches he'd already been a part of at 25 years old. Wimbledon 2008, Wimbledon 2007, the Aussie semis and final 2009, Rome 2005, Rome 2006, Madrid 2009, the Olympic semis 2008, the Davis Cup final 2011, heck, Nalbandian at Indian Wells 2009, and on from there. He had won virtually all of the close ones before, but it had never looked easy-unlike most other clutch performers, you could always see Nadal struggling to keep the "colm." This time, at 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth, he couldn't keep the colm. This time he was playing a guy who made him pay for it. Nadal may or may not end up as the greatest player of all time, but whether he's winning or losing, very few, if any, players careers' have been as epic. Upped half a grade for his amazingly upbeat post-match press conference, which included this comment:
Q: "Are you going to watch [the match] again on tape?"
Rafa: "Too long. Highlights only." A+
The consensus is that Murray has now proven that he will win a Grand Slam, that it's just a matter of time. I hate to disagree, but I'm still not sure. This was his most courageous late-round Slam loss thus far, and it included the most promising three-game run of his career, from 2-5 to 5-5 in the fifth set against Djokovic. Still, when he got the lead to start the fourth, he didn't know what to do with it. I think, and hope, he'll handle it better next time, but I wouldn't guarantee it. A-
You have to admire her commitment, despite all the money in the world, to the task of winning more majors, especially when it's starting to feel like tennis's great Sisyphean task. She keeps lugging her shaky serve up the hill, getting within touching distance of the summit, and then being blown right back down to the bottom by a hot-handed, and usually younger, opponent. I'm glad she still cares as much as she does. Upped a notch for taking her mortifying final-round loss so graciously. Docked a notch for her too-haughty remarks about that "unimportant" person, Agnieszka Radwanska. A-
The player turned commentator unintentionally lightened the mood for me in the wee hours last night. This was his quote, about Djoko-Rafa, and the unique challenge of this game: "I mean, what other sport do you play almost six hours of tennis in?" Thanks for narrowing it down for us, Greg. A-
Again, he looked untouchable until the semis. Again, once there, he faltered in the key moments and watched as a critical, and remarkable, shot from his opponent dropped on the line. He couldn't get past Djokovic at two majors last year; now Nadal has shut him out. So No. 3 is where the "best player of the history" rightly resides at the moment. Even if those early wins in Oz didn't lead anywhere, though, his masterly deconstructions of Tomic and del Potro were must-see viewing for the artistic tennis lover. The less the rest of the game looks like his, the more I want to see him play. I'm betting he'll be rewarded for his continued persistence in the end. Mark of a pro: He doesn't rationalize his Slam defeats, or lower his expectations at these events, because of his age. B+
The last game against Sharapova, when she staggered through a break of serve in a daze, was a bummer. But this was an encouraging run for Kvitova, and for those who want to see her succeed consistently. She seems to believe in herself a little more with each win. B+
The feel on the lob, the smarts on the serve, the wily veteran craftiness when he was behind, the unsentimental farewell, and the insightful commentary once it was all over: Rusty, maybe we really miss you. B+
He's not just a brand pitchman anymore. Nishikori has Bollettieri-ball down pat, and an important Slam win, over Tsonga in the fourth round, under his belt-though he could play faster. Upped a notch for honoring his promise to play mixed with Kimiko Date-Krumm the day before his quarterfinal. B+
His best event yet, and proof that his competitive skills are advanced for his age. The deer in the headlights look against Federer was excusable, but not owning up to challenging a disputed call against Dolgopolov wasn't. I want to like him. B+
Her determination in the face of victory over Serena was nice to see, as was a new face, for a day anyway, in the press room. B
He helped give us two excellent sets against Nadal. Yes, he should have shaken Almagro's hand, but how many of the handshakes that actually happened were as fun to watch as his snub? B
Juan Martin del Potro
Is he still on his way back? Or has he settled in where he belongs, a definite tier below the best? With each Slam, the latter looks more likely. We're going to need him for variety in the semis soon. B-
Once again, we can't trust him at the Slams. Should this affect our enjoyment of his shotmaking and charisma, and his success elsewhere? Nope. But watching it go for nought at the majors is frustrating. C+
Smashing four racquets was the smartest thing he did Down Under. C
Coo-coo against Kuku: His most perverse performance yet. The crowd atmosphere he generated was great, but as usual he pulled the rug out by blowing the match in the end. D