MELBOURNE, Australia – The tennis that Novak Djokovic imposed upon Rafael Nadal Sunday night in the Australian Open men’s singles final was of all-world proportions.
And the bell that sounded when it was over after barely two hours sounded like this: “Roger and your 20 majors? Rafa and your 17? I’m coming for you.”
In Nadal’s case, that might even be this season, if Sunday’s combination of motivation, desire and execution is any hint.
Djokovic surrendered just eight games and made just nine unforced errors in a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory. His eternal rival, in their 53rd meeting, was at times made to look as though he had never faced this particular Serb before.
“Obviously back to back semi-finals and finals and make 15 unforced errors in total, in two matches, is quite pleasantly surprising to myself. Even though I always believe I can play this way, and kind of visualize myself playing this way, at this level and under the circumstances it was really a perfect match,” Djokovic said.
It took 33 minutes, through more than four service games, for Nadal to win a point on Djokovic’s serve. They were 53 minutes in before he won his second. It took an hour and 46 minutes for Nadal to get his first break opportunity on Djokovic’s serve. Some 15 minutes after that, it was over.
Quick start the key
The victory wasn’t a shock, based on their hard-court resumé. But the jokers were a little wild on that score. It has been nearly three years since they met on a hard court.
Since then, both have had physical challenges. Djokovic went from the nearly-unbeatable player he was then into a downturn exacerbated by both ailing elbow and bruised psyche. After winning so much, for such an extended period of time, he needed to find new purpose and new motivation for this chapter of his career.
In healing both, he found it.
Still, Nadal hadn’t won a hard-court set from Djokovic since the 2013 US Open final. And he’d played little hard-court tennis at all over the last 12 months: only the Australian Open (where he retired against Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals), the Roger Cup (which he won) and the US Open, where he retired against Juan Martin del Potro in the semis.
So form held true, in that sense.
Defense didn’t answer the call
Beyond that, Djokovic had extra mustard. He kept the ball deep, as he always does. But he took it so early, so often, he gave Nadal no time to settle in, no room to breathe. He rattled him from the start.
If Nadal’s legs looked a bit frozen, if he looked nervous, Nadal said that was all credit to his opponent.
“It was not about being more nervous. I (had) normal nerves, like final of Grand Slam. But the things started so quick. He was pushing me to every ball. What on other days have been a serve and a ball that I can have in offensive position, today have been in defensive position. That’s not nerves. That’s things that happened quicker than what happened the previous days,” he said.
“I don’t like to say he played unbelievably well, because looks like you find an excuse for yourself. The real thing is he played so well. He did a lot of things (that are) very difficult unbelievably well. He hit so long. His return was fantastic. He was super quick. I really believe that he was able to work very hard on the off-season on his movement. He was moving unbelievably well. I felt that good shots came back with offensive position for me, after not a bad shot from me, I have been in the defensive position (instead).”
Quick start required
Djokovic said he needed to rush out of the starting gates with a flourish.
“It’s exactly what I intended to do. I want do step out on court and bring the intensity. Because I knew intensity was waiting for me on the other side. He makes you play every shot from the very first point, brings a lot of energy in the shots,” Djokovic said. “I definitely needed a good start, because we both were playing well coming into the match. I knew I have a good chance if I’m in the court dictating play.”
The Mallorcan had looked impressive in getting to the final. More than that; he had looked devastating.
But his draw was well set up. He dismissed the Next Gen – Alex de Minaur, Frances Tiafoe and Stefanos Tsitsipas – with a few swats of his mighty Babolat. He took care of a resurgent contemporary, Tomas Berdych, with all the might his 19-4 head-to-head against the Czech would suggest.
Djokovic was a next-level challenge, compared to those who had come before. Perhaps two levels above.
An as Nadal explained it, he didn’t have that “extra thing” he needed to put up more resistance.
Nadal said he was able to win his first six matches with his offense. But against Djokovic, he knew he needed his defence to also be up to the task.
Lack of practice, lack of perfect
This was his first official tournament since the US Open last September. And the player who builds so much of his confidence on how much, and how well, he practices had been woefully short in that area. So when he needed it, it wasn’t there.
“I have been lot of months without having the chance to practice, without having the chance to compete. And have been two positive weeks. The only thing probably that I need is time and more matches. … Of course, he played better than what probably he played during the rest of the tournament. Being honest, I saw him the tournament more or less. He probably played the best match so far. Playing that well, is so difficult for everybody, for everyone, when he plays that level, is so difficult to fight for victories against him,” Nadal said.
“But if I am able to run 100 per cent and to resist every ball, then you find ways. The things that looks easy for him become little bit more difficult when you have to do it one more time, one more time and one more time. I was not able to push him to do it one more, one more, one more every time. That’s my feeling,” he added. “I believe the level of tennis have been great. Probably the only thing that remained a little bit more to me was normally the best thing that I have (the defense). Is something that I am not worried much.”
Nole Slam nears again
A year ago in Melbourne, Djokovic was just weeks away from surgery on his elbow. He was defeated in straight sets by Hyeon Chung of Korea in the fourth round.
He returned – perhaps too hastily – and lost in the first round of both Indian Wells and Miami. But by Wimbledon, he was back.
“Not impossible, but highly unlikely. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I always believe in myself, and that’s probably the biggest secret of my success, or any other athlete,” Djokovic said about Sunday night’s win, looking ahead from where he was a year ago.
An imperial challenge
Djokovic has now won the last three majors. If he can win the French Open in the spring, he would hold all four Grand Slams at once for the second time in his career. And he will have won them in the same order: starting with Wimbledon, ending with Roland Garros.
“We’ll see. Obviously it’s just the beginning of the season. I know there’s a lot of tournaments to play before the Roland Garros, so I have plenty of time to build my form slowly, obviously staying on a hard court first with big tournaments, Indian Wells and Miami, then starting the clay,” he said. “Obviously I have to work on my game, my clay court game, a bit more, more specifically than I have in the last season. I need to play better than I have last season. I am already playing better. But, I mean, clay specifically in order to have a chance and shot at the title.
“The ultimate challenge there is to win against Nadal. Then you have Thiem and Zverev, Roger is probably going to play. You have a lot of great players that on clay can challenge me or anybody else.”
Is 20 in sight?
He now has seven Australian Opens. And he has 15 majors – two short of Nadal, five short of Federer.
He’s going to give it a go.
“I am aware that making history of the sport that I truly love is something special. Of course, it motivates me. Playing Grand Slams, biggest ATP events, is my utmost priority in this season and in seasons to come. How many seasons are to come? I don’t know. I’m not trying to think too much advance,” he said.
“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. It’s still far.”