Seven years ago at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic battled past Rafael Nadal in a historic, marathon final.
On Sunday it was the same end result but more like a 20-meter sprint thanks to Djokovic’s brilliance.
The Serb crushed a shell-shocked Nadal in front of a stunned Rod Laver Arena 6-3 6-2 6-3 to become the first man in Australian Open history to amass seven titles.
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That five hour, 53-minute contest in 2012 that at times left both men gasping for air and led to, unusually, organizers giving them chairs during the trophy presentation? Nowhere to be found.
Instead the world No. 1 needed a mere two hours, four minutes to see off the second-ranked Nadal in what was the most lopsided men’s final in Melbourne in games since Andre Agassi surrendered five to Germany’s Rainer Schuettler in 2003.
Djokovic won all but 13 of his service points, registering 34 winners overall and a minuscule nine unforced errors after routing Lucas Pouille in the semifinals.
About the only thing he got wrong Sunday was speculating he made 15 unforced errors in the last two matches. It was actually 14.
“It’s quite pleasantly surprising to myself, even though I always believe I can play this way, visualize myself playing this way,” said Djokovic. “At this level under the circumstances, it was truly a perfect match.”
He took sole possession of third place on the all-time men’s list with 15 majors – passing Agassi’s chief rival Pete Sampras – and pulled to within two of Nadal and five of leader Roger Federer.
“I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have, mental, physical, emotional, so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record,” said Djokovic.
“It’s still far.”
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Second ‘Novak Slam?’
Closer, if Djokovic wins the French Open in June – and that is certainly a possibility despite Nadal’s prowess at Roland Garros – the 31-year-old would complete the “Novak Slam” of capturing four consecutive majors for a second time. He is one of two men to upend 11-time champion Nadal at the French Open.
Yes, this is the same Djokovic who plummeted outside the top 20 last year following elbow surgery and a general malaise.
Federer and Nadal are usually the first two players mentioned in discussions of the men’s “Goat” – greatest of all time – but Djokovic is seriously butting in.
Federer and Nadal have never won four straight majors and Djokovic also holds winning records against both, now 28-25 against the Mallorcan.
And this was supposed to be a Nadal in form.
The left-hander – armed with a new service motion – didn’t come close to dropping a set en route to the final and had only been broken in one match, his opener against Australia’s James Duckworth.
Yet Nadal, in his first tournament since the US Open due to ever more injuries, faced a considerable step up in competition from the six others he swatted away at Melbourne Park.
“I played fantastic tennis during both weeks, but probably playing that well I didn’t suffer much during both weeks,” said Nadal. “Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. That something else probably today I don’t have it yet.”
Nadal upped the aggression in his game but he said all the inactivity didn’t allow him to work on his defense, which is usually a mainstay.
“To play against a player like him, playing the way he played tonight, I needed that defensive game to finally have the chance to be offensive, no?” said Nadal. “When he was hitting, it’s true that maybe it was difficult to beat him even if I was at my 100%. But probably will be a little bit more fight.”
He will have to wait, again, to become the first man in the Open Era to bag each of the majors at least twice.
No stranger to injury heartbreak at the Australian Open, this defeat won’t hurt Nadal as much since he was never really into the match. It was unlike in 2012, when he rallied to force a fifth set and led the decider 4-2, or when he fell to Djokovic in five sets in the Wimbledon semifinals last July.
“In terms of mental pain, it’s harder the semifinals of Wimbledon than this one,” he said. “In the semifinals of Wimbledon, I was so close and I was playing so well, having a lot of matches in a row, winning Roland Garros, playing so well on clay. I had that extra intensity in that moment.
“For me, it was a big chance lost to win another Wimbledon. Tonight I didn’t have that chance. It’s easier to forget, yes.”
Irrespective of that, no player has ever got into Nadal’s head like Djokovic.
The latter came out flying, while Nadal appeared tentative.
He only conceded one point in the first three games and only gave up one point on serve in the entire first set.
He smothered Nadal, who, seemingly frazzled by his own start, showed little of his previous sparkle.
To sum up his woes, Nadal even whiffed on a forehand in the seventh game of the first.
That first set was always going to be pivotal. Djokovic held a 17-1 record against the Spaniard when winning the first set away from Nadal’s favored clay, with the solitary reverse coming courtesy of a retirement at Wimbledon in 2007.
Shots Nadal executed with little fuss turned into unforced errors, much like when Federer would err on seemingly simple shots in a phase when Nadal bossed their head-to-heads.
A case in point came on Nadal’s lone break point at 2-3 in the third. With time to rip a backhand cross court, he sent his drive into the net.
A psychological battle, this tennis.
Djokovic has now beaten Nadal in eight straight hard-court outings and in nine of their past 11 matches overall, aided by a crosscourt backhand that his foe might have nightmares about.
“I don’t want to say I figured him out because I don’t want that to bounce back at me in any way in the future,” said Djokovic. “I might have figured him out for the match, but not for life.
“I’m sure we’re still going to have a lot of matches against each other on different surfaces. I look forward to it. I really hope we will because this rivalry has been the most significant rivalry, the one that impacted me on a personal and professional level than most in my life.”
Nadal sent a backhand long on a second championship point, before shaking umpire James Keothavong’s hand, then Djokovic’s.
Djokovic proceeded to drop to his knees at Rod Laver Arena in celebration.
He was again the king of Melbourne and is still the king of the tennis world.