Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic: Australian Open live analysis
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic (left) and Rafael Nadal face off in the season's first Grand Slam final. (Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic outlasted Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 on Sunday to win the Australian Open in the longest Grand Slam final of the Open Era.
Djokovic won his third straight major and extended his winning streak over Nadal to seven. Nadal became the first player in the Open Era to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals.
Game-by-game analysis from the five-hour, 53-minute match is below.
9:40 a.m. ET | Djokovic wins set 7-5, wins match 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5
After 5 hours and 53 minutes we find out what we knew all along: Novak Djokovic is simply unbeatable.
Nadal sends a backhand into the net on the first point and Djokovic gets to 30-love with an ace. At 30-15, Nadal sends back defensive slice after defensive slice and finally throws up a defensive lob that Djokovic sends into the bottom of the net. On the next point, Nadal spins his legs again, covering the court like a road runner, earning a backhand error from Djokovic and a break point.
Break point down, Djokovic does what he always does: he closes his eyes and takes a rip, crushing a backhand cross court winner. Nadal tries to do the same thing at deuce except his backhand clips the tape and goes wide, giving Djokovic his first match point. The Serb pleads to the heavens, settles himself, and then serves up the tee, getting a short reply, and finishes with a mid-court forehand.
That was an incredible almost six hours of tennis. This was a battle of wills, but in the end, when the margin for error was so small, Djokovic steeled himself to victory. He's had some incredible wins during his otherworldly rise, but this is undoubtedly his biggest and most impressive of all. Huge heart from the Serb to beat back a charging Nadal.
9:31 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 6-5
Momentum is a funny thing. Nadal looked down and out in the fourth set and squeaked it out in the end. Now Djokovic looked down and dusted through most of this fifth set but he's broken and will serve for the match.
Djokovic gets a great return deep that Nadal hits out and he knows he's got a chance on Nadal's serve. The Serb buckles down and earns a break point after a lengthy rally and Djokovic is now hitting the ball well again. There's more stick to his shots and they're pushing Nadal back. Nadal saves one break point with a forehand winner, but he gives another one back with a forehand winner. Down break point, Nadal sends a backhand slice into the tape, and voila, Djokovic breaks.
9:22 a.m. ET | Set tied 5-5
Djokovic with a quick hold. He needed that.
It's 5-5 in the fifth and this one is too tough to call right now. It feels like Djokovic has pulled the momentum back to even.
9:15 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 5-4
Djokovic gets within one point of being able to serve for this match but Nadal steps up, saving a break point and holding. The guts on display right now is absolutely insane.
A 35-shot rally ends when Djokovic finally blinks and sends a forehand long. He falls to the ground in exhaustion and the crowd comes to its feet to give the guys a standing ovation. This is incredible determination after five hours (and counting) of play. But Nadal sends a quick message to the struggling Serb. Before Djokovic is even back on his feet, Nadal is standing on the line ready to serve and get the next point started. At 30-30 Nadal hits an ace down the tee and Djokovic is now pleading with his racket for some help. He's starting to look like a guy who cannot believe he's in this situation, but behind that wry smile is the determination of a guy who's not ready to let Nadal off the hook.
Djokovic saves game point with an inside-out forehand return winner, and an errant forehand gives him break point. At five hours and 30 minutes Nadal does what he did over an hour ago, he saves break point with a service winner and backs it up with another big serve that sets up a drop shot winner. Djokovic sends a backhand return long and with a "VAMOS!", Nadal squeezes out the hold.
At 4-5, Djokovic is now serving to stay in the match from here on out.
9:05 a.m. ET | Set tied 4-4
I don't know how he's still standing, but Djokovic holds and kisses the cross around his neck.
At love-15, a grueling 25-shot rally ends at the net as Djokovic puts away the volley and the Serb smiles through heavy breathing. Everything has to be burning for him right now, his lungs and his legs. But credit to him, he's fighting through it, getting a backhand error on a return from Nadal. And as Nadal has now dropped back into his defensive shell, Djokovic is controlling the rallies and going for winners. Not a good tactic from Nadal. The defensive game only works if he's going to work Djokovic's legs, not if he's just going let the Serb take swings from the middle of the court.
8:59 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 4-3
Djokovic breaks back thanks to a bit of charitable hitting from Nadal and we're back on serve.
Serving at 30-15, Nadal has plenty of time on a backhand at the net and he shockingly sends it wide. That ball changed everything in this game, as Djokovic earns a break point with some heavy hitting to Nadal's forehand and then a perfect return on a second serve that skids off the baseline prompts a forehand error from Nadal. The Djoker is still kicking, but he's still serving from behind at 3-4.
8:55 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 4-2
Nadal keeps working Djokovic's legs while churning his own and it works. He gets the break and is in control of this match.
Djokovic has never won back-to-back five-set matches and he's never had to play two consecutive grueling matches like this and his 4 hour, 50 minute semifinal against Murray. His shots have lost their pop and Nadal is running everything down and getting a good strike on the ball. At 30-30, Nadal retreats to the back of the court and dares Djokovic to try and hit through him. On the 14th shot of the rally, Djokovic sails an inside-out forehand wide to give Nadal break point. He converts when Djokovic sends a forehand long. Nadal is two games away from getting the monkey off his back.
8:48 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 3-2
Nadal holds at love and he hasn't dropped a point on his serve so far in this set. Djokovic is actually staggering after hitting his shots. We've seen this from Djokovic before and Nadal will pay no mind to the Serb's body language.
We might need to get some espresso shots down on court. The lines judge just missed a call that was an inch out. Wake up, everyone!
8:45 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
Nadal gets to 15-30 on Djokovic's serve but the Serb scraps out the hold. He pulled up a bit, and it looks like the nine hours of total tennis over the last few days is taking its toll. He's stretching his legs out and trying to keep the points shorter, and Nadal is happy to keep him running.
8:41 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 2-1
Nadal holds at love and he's finding his spots on the serve. Meanwhile, Djokovic isn't the ball-returning machine that he was through three sets. If he can't get into Nadal's service games, the Spaniard will be able to save his energy to really attack Djokovic's service games.
Nadal hit 11 winners in the fourth set, equal to his total in the second and third set combined. He'll need to keep attacking going forward.
8:37 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Djokovic holds with relative ease and former NBA player Vlade Divac, who's sitting in Djokovic's box, looks like he's been through the wringer. Us too, Vlade. Us too.
8:33 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 1-0
Nadal is still riding his high and he serves first in the 5th set. At 15-15 he hits a shocking forehand, falling backward for a winner and Djokovic can do nothing but smile. That one defied the laws of physics and biomechanics. He punctuates the hold with an ace down the tee.
Can Djokovic wrench back the momentum? If he's feeling the fatigue from his last two matches I've got some bad news: No fifth set tiebreak in Melbourne. They'll have to play this out.
8:28 a.m. ET | Nadal wins set 7-6 (5)
Can you believe it? Nadal was down 3-4, 0-40 on his serve thirty minutes ago. Now he's pulled the match even, splitting sets with Djokovic after coming back from 3-5 down in the tiebreak.
The men switch sides and a running Nadal forehand goes wide. It's 4-3 and Djokovic can see the finish line. He crushes a forehand down the line and those legs aren't looking all that heavy anymore now that he's up 5-3. A 16-shot rally sees Nadal on a string as Djokovic yanks him from corner to corner, but that relentless defense pays off when Djokovic sends a forehand wide. Nadal evens it up again with defense as he gives Djokovic an awkward ball inside the service box that Djokovic nets.
At 5-5, Nadal knuckles down and fires a wide service winner and he's got a set point with Djokovic serving. Djokovic sends a forehand wide, Nadal drops to his knees in celebration as if he's won the match, and the longest final ever at Melbourne Park will see a 5th set.
This is incredible stuff. Nadal won that set not with forehands or backhands or tactics. He won on sheer will.
8:19 a.m. ET | Set tied 6-6, tiebreak tied 3-3
Nadal wins the first big point of the tiebreak, putting Djokovic on the defensive with a big forehand out wide and then follows it up at the net with a tricky volley winner. The Spaniard is snarling, leaping, and fist pumping, while Djokovic's legs are looking heavy. He's flat-footed in the rally, but at 2-1, Nadal sends a backhand long to bail him out. He grabs his head in disgust. That was a huge opportunity for a 3-1 lead.
At 2-2, Djokovic sends a forehand long but Nadal once again bails him out on the next point when an inside-out forehand ticks the tape and bounces wide.
Djokovic is lucky to be walking to the chair even at 3-3. He could easily be down 5-1.
8:11 a.m. ET | Set tied 6-6
For the first time since the first set, Nadal holds at love and we're into a tiebreak.
Signs of frustration from Djokovic are beginning to show now, and the Serb actually backs off a second serve return that he could have taken a big cut at. Nadal is fist pumping on every point and Djokovic is hanging his head. The momentum is clearly shifting.
8:07 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 6-5
Djokovic holds at 30 but Nadal's defense may be creeping into his head, as the Serb is beginning to throw in some errors when he decides to pull the trigger for winners. Nadal had some chances in that game, but a backhand into the net ends them and Djokovic holds.
At four hours and 24 minutes, this is officially the longest match these two have ever contested against each other.
Nadal will serve to try and stay in the match and force a tiebreak.
8:04 a.m. ET | Set tied 5-5
So far the rain delay hasn't had any affect on the match, which is bad news for Nadal. Djokovic is still getting deep returns on Nadal's service games but the Spaniard holds at 30.
Nadal is being aggressive, but he runs around a forehand (good move) but hits it long (bad move). His defense is on full display though, as he races all over the court to force Djokovic into errors and the crowd is firmly on Nadal's side now.
7:56 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 5-4
Play is stopped for 10 minutes flat and Djokovic holds easily.
Nothing is fazing Djokovic and he comes out and plays two calm points to get to 30-love. Those break points shouldn't weigh too heavily on his mind. He didn't lose them, Nadal won them. Djokovic punctuates an easy hold with a running forehand winner down the line. He turns to box and raises his index finger. He's the man.
Nadal serving to stay in the match now. Djokovic got to 0-40 easily in his last service game.
7:46 a.m. ET | Set tied 4-4, Rain delay
Is there a better competitor in sports than Rafael Nadal? No way.
Djokovic indeed makes his move, earning three break points on a blistering forehand down-the-line winner, and Nadal responds with some heavy hitting to save the first break point, pounding his inside-out forehand until he gets it out of the Serb's reach. An ace saves the next one and wrong foots the Serb with a backhand to get back to deuce. It's always a thrill to watch Nadal compete like this. At deuce he serves another ace out wide that lands on the line, and backs it up with another service winner, letting loose a supercharged lawnmower celebration as he holds.
And now we have raindrops and the players are sitting down as the court is being inspected. Indeed, we'll have a stoppage in play as the roof over Rod Laver Arena closes. How in the world will Nadal respond after this stoppage? He's high on adrenaline after surviving that love-40 game. Will this stoppage ice him or give him time to settle his mind?
7:38 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 4-3
Another quick and easy hold for Djokovic.
Look for him to make his move in the next game, but Nadal has proven he'll go down swinging until the end.
7:34 a.m. ET | Set tied 3-3
Nadal's bending but he's not breaking, holding serve at 30.
Djokovic is still painting the baseline with his returns. It's incredible. He tags the baseline on one return and steps into the court to crush a second serve that took days to get to him. This relentless pressure on Nadal's serve forces some very tentative serving from Nadal, as he double faults and leaves a few serves short. But he's still fighting and the scoreboard in the fourth set is still even. For now, that's all that matters.
7:27 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 3-2
Djokovic just keeps plugging away to hold at 30.
At 15-15, Nadal hits a backhand slice down the line and then attacks Djokovic's reply, unleashing a 100 mph inside-out forehand winner. Huge fist pump from the Spaniard after that one. He's forcing himself to be more aggressive, but Djokovic doesn't looked bothered at all. He knows that if he can hold easily and keep the pressure on Nadal's serve, he'll have his chances.
7:19 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
Nadal finally gets a relatively straight-forward hold and we'll see if that gives him some confidence going into Djokovic's service game. Nadal hasn't had a love hold since his first service game and that constant strain to hold can take its toll.
Here's what Nadal said about his serve after last year's loss at the U.S. Open:
"I didn't have free points during all that games. I didn't have one free point in both sets. A few moments that you are tired and the few moments you really need something, I never had these free points. Last year I had; I didn't have this year. That changes the match a lot. My serve has to come back to another level."
7:14 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 2-1
Nadal is having to work so hard to hold serve while Djokovic is the picture of calm. Easy hold for the Serb at love.
7:07 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Tough deuce hold from Nadal but you can see him trying to be more aggressive. He's redlining his game now, trying to hit out on any ball he gets a good look at. He doesn't look completely comfortable but it's what he has to do to put any pressure on Djokovic.
7:04 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 1-0
In the first set, Nadal hit 15 winners to 17 unforced errors. In the third set? 2 winners to 10 unforced errors. No aggression whatsoever from Nadal, and even though Djokovic holds to start the fourth set, Nadal is showing some signs that he's willing to get more aggressive here.
A 21-shot rally sees Djokovic run Nadal ragged, but at 40-30 we finally see Nadal stand on the baseline and grab control of the rally, hitting a flat inside-out forehand to win the point and get to deuce. He's trying to hit flatter now, and saves a break point when he leans into a backhand and drives it down the line to get the error.
But Djokovic knows how important this first game is and he's fist pumping on every point to keep focused and send a message to Nadal that he has no intention of letting Nadal back into the match. He holds with an ace out wide.
6:57 a.m. ET | Djokovic wins set 6-2
This is all slipping away fast for Nadal. He gets broken at love with a searing forehand winner from Djokovic that Nadal doesn't even make a move for. The Serb lets out a roar and he's one set away from laying down another statement win against Nadal and defending his title here in Melbourne. When he plays like he did in that third set, he looks unbeatable.
6:52 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 5-2
Djokovic easily holds and nothing Nadal is doing is bothering him. The camera shows Jelena Ristic coming back to the player's box with a bottle of water and a big smile. She's relaxed, as she should be. Her man is the better player right now.
6:48 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 4-2
Nadal holds thanks to a couple of errant returns from Djokovic.
Nadal saves a break point with a hard and flat serve out wide. It's been a while since he's gone for his serve like that and he really needs to hit his way back into this match. Djokovic is bullying him off the baseline and crushing returns. For the tournament, Nadal has won 56 percent of baseline points. Tonight? 20 percent.
6:44 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 4-1
Easy hold for Djokovic. The only way Nadal is going to get back into this is to go back to being aggressive. He's dropped back into his defensive shell and any new tactics he employed to win the first set are gone.
6:41 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 3-1
Djokovic breaks and this is beginning to feel like an inevitable result for the Serb, who's picked up his game and turning the screws on a befuddled Nadal.
Djokovic is hitting his returns so well not even the linesmen can believe it. At 30-30 a return lands on the line and is called out, forcing the chair umpire to overrule. Djokovic is livid, but earns a break point and after a 20-shot rally Nadal hooks a forehand wide to give Djokovic the break.
Nadal's body language isn't good. He's hanging his head and he's lost a bit of pep in his step. Two hours ago it looked like he might have solved the Djokovic riddle. Now this is all feeling very 2011.
6:32 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 2-1
Nadal has a chance at 30-30 to get a break point but oddly decelerates on a backhand that he sends weakly into the net. He punches his strings in frustration and Djokovic holds.
Frustrating match to watch so far. No particularly memorable rallies and neither man has been at his best. Quite different from last year's clashes, which always produced brilliant rally after brilliant rally.
6:24 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Tough hold for Nadal but he gets it done.
He actually led 40-15 but Djokovic is still returning well and pushing Nadal behind the baseline. The body serve is bailing Rafa out and Djokovic gets a bit frustrated with his inability to get out of the way and get those returns in. Don't be greedy, Novak. You can't be awesome at everything.
6:17 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 1-0
Djokovic puffed out his chest at his box after winning that set and he comes out with momentum to hold at love.
The Serb has changed back into his white shirt now. It's always good to match when you're receiving your trophy.
6:12 a.m. ET | Djokovic wins set 6-4
"Lines people struggling, but the chair's on fire," Jim Courier correctly notes.
Chair umpire Pascal Maria correctly overrules an out call at 40-30 that would have given Nadal the game. The point is replayed and Djokovic gets it back to deuce. On the next point Djokovic guesses right and hits a short-swing backhand pass that Nadal watches fly by. Down set point and knowing that Djokovic's return has been hurting him all set, Nadal double faults badly to lose the set.
It's been two hours and 27 minutes for two sets alone. Get those espresso machines out, folks.
6:02 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 5-4
Nadal saves two game points to get to deuce, punctuating the second point with a great forehand that lands just inside the line. Nadal dodges a bullet on the next point when he goes for a drop shot that Djokovic gets to with plenty of time. But Rafa guesses right and sticks a forehand volley into the corner to earn a break point. Djokovic double faults and shoots a shocked grin to his box.
Rafa's off the canvas. He still has to serve to stay in the set though, and Djokovic has been returning really well.
5:54 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 5-3
Djokovic hits a return winner and Nadal actually challenges his own serve, hoping that the ball was out. Djokovic thinks he's waited too long to challenge. But it all works out in the end as the ball in by a millimeter. Competitive much, Rafa?
Djokovic is hitting cleanly now and his returns have handcuffed Nadal. He's sending them deep and flat and Nadal's getting caught on his back foot repeatedly. Nadal struggles to hold but Djokovic is shooting bullets off his racket now. Djokovic serving for the set.
5:45 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 5-2
Djokovic holds, and in a rather ominous move, there are platters of food being brought into the media center. We're in for a long night.
5:40 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 4-2
Here's what Nadal said about Murray's flat play after he won that grueling third set:
"He lost another very good opportunity, in my opinion. You cannot start the fourth set like this. It's the moment to play with more intensity than ever, not start with 3-love down and two breaks in five minutes. That way you lose the match. You want to win the tournament, you cannot start -- you can lose -- the other can beat you, but you cannot lose in the beginning."
Nadal's started flat in this set, that's for sure, though Djokovic is certainly picking up his game. Rafa holds.
5:36 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 4-1
Looks like the forehand is opening up. At 30-30 Djokovic uses his backhand to attack Nadal's forehand until he gets a ball that sits up perfectly and he pounds an inside-out winner.
He holds to consolidate the break and the Serb is definitely looking more relaxed. That's not good news for Team Nadal.
5:31 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 3-1
Better from Djokovic in this game, as he finally does some heavy hitting on his forehand for the break.He sends a bit of a message on the first point of the game, hitting a fierce forehand down the line for a winner. But Nadal isn't backing down. He's doing a great job of holding his position on the baseline and absorbing Djokovic's power.
He leans in and hits a great backhand down-the-line winner and lets loose a prolonged grunt to top it off. But as has been the case for the match, he throws in two forehand errors to give Djokovic a break point, which the Serb converts with a terrific volley from below the net that skips off the baseline to land in. Nadal throws his head back in frustration.
Let's see if Novak starts opening up on his forehand now that he has a lead. He needs to.
5:25 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 2-1
Brace yourselves, this match is going to take for-ev-er. It's been an hour and forty minutes and we're only through a set and three games. Chair ump Pascal Maria has already given Nadal a soft warning for taking too long between points.
Good hold for Djokovic here to stay on serve in the second set. Nadal is still misfiring a bit and he shows some frustration after missing a forehand on game point. Like I said, patchy from both.
5:19 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Nadal opens the game with a weak double fault, and then sends a forehand into the middle of the net after Djokovic pulls him wide. Another forehand error and Nadal's down two break points. See, Rafa? Easier said than done.
Djokovic plays passively on break point and he loses it. He's frustrated, yelling at himself, at his box, at his racket. On the next point he lets Nadal take control of a 20-shot rally. The Serb is playing too much defense, which is as much a credit to Nadal as it is to Djokovic making it harder for himself by not going for his shots. He's rolling over his forehand and too many times he's going for a defensive slice forehand as opposed to hitting through the ball, giving Nadal time to do whatever he wants.
The Spaniard slips out of a tight spot with an ace and holds. Patchy stuff from both men, really. The tennis hasn't been great so far. At least not by the standards set by these two, which admittedly, is a completely unfair standard.
5:09 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 1-0
Nadal has never lost a major final after winning the first set. That's the good news for him. The bad news is that Djokovic isn't playing that well and if he can tighten up his game and find that forehand he can seize back control of this match.
Djokovic holds and we'll see if there's any letdown from Nadal. He criticized Andy Murray for coming out so flat to lose the fourth set after fighting so hard to win the third set. In their U.S. Open final, Nadal fought valiantly to win the third set, only to play horribly in the fourth to lose the match. He knows how important it is to keep his foot on the pedal to send a message. Let's see if he can do it.
5:04 a.m. ET | Nadal wins set 7-5
Nadal earns set point after a well-crafted point sees him hit an overhead to the corner from the baseline and then sprint in behind the shot, finishing at the net. Tio Toni likes it, as he gets out of his seat to punch the air.
Djokovic saves two set points with some good hitting from his backhand side. His forehand still leaves much to be desired in this match. He just doesn't look like he has confidence in it and Nadal senses it, attacking the forehand relentlessly with his backhand to earn another set point.
A good body serve from Nadal and Djokovic slices the return long. First set to Nadal after an hour and twenty minutes. Not the best quality between these two, though. Djokovic a few notches off his game.
4:56 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 6-5
Nadal completely changes the tenor of this game when he leans into a backhand and hits it flat cross-court for a winner. Then he earns a break point when he cuts off the angle on a forehand and takes it early, sending it down the line. Good aggression from Nadal there.
Down break point, Djokovic sends a backhand long and after an hour and 14 minutes, Nadal is serving for the first set.
4:50 a.m. ET | Set tied 5-5
Good response from Nadal as he serves to stay in the set. He builds a 40-love lead with some good serving, but things get tight at 40-30. No nerves for Nadal, though, who dictates the point with his forehand and then runs around to hit a flat inside-out winner that sees him finish the shot from outside the tramlines.
4:45 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 5-4
Nadal has a chance to go up love-40 on Djokovic' serve, but, with a backhand lined up perfectly to pass Djokovic, the ball clips the tape and pops up, giving Djokovic new life. He scuttles over to hit a backhand winner and Nadal put his hands on his hips. He can't believe the bad luck.
From a centimeter away from love-40 to a Djokovic hold. If Nadal loses this set he's going to take it all out on that net cord. That was a huge point.
Djokovic is back to his focused and positive self and he's finding the patterns that work against Nadal, pushing him deep on the backhand and attacking anything marginally short and sending it wide to Nadal's forehand. The Nadal camp can't like this momentum shift.
4:39 a.m. ET | Set tied 4-4
On game point, Djokovic gets two high bouncing balls on his forehand in the middle of the court, and I'm surprised he didn't go for the outright winner. Instead, he opted to hit them hard and heavy down the middle of the court to try and push Nadal back. The tactic works for two straight points, earning the Serb a break point, which he loses when he sails a slice forehand wide.
Nadal saves another break point with a good serve out wide. But Djokovic finally connects with an inside-out forehand to earn his fifth break point of the match, which he converts when Nadal sends a forehand into the net to get the first set back on serve. Not a good game from the Spaniard there. I wonder if the change to new balls had something to do with it. His timing was off.
4:27 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 4-3
Djokovic almost looks like he doesn't believe in his racket. He's taking huge cuts at the ball and pausing to see where they land. They landed in that game, as Djokovic plays a nonchalant game to hold with relative ease. He was playing surprisingly fast between points. Yes, you read that correctly.
4:22 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 4-2
Tennis.com's Steve Tignor observes that Djokovic is already on his third racket, speculating the Serb isn't happy with his string tension. That makes sense, as today's weather in Melbourne is like nothing we've had through the fortnight. It's the most humid it's been all tournament, it's still very warm this evening, and the roof is partially closed. Tough conditions to figure out the right tension.
Speaking of tension, Djokovic is showing some. Throwing his hands up at his box and barking angrily at himself. When he misses his forehands. And he's missing by feet. He squanders two break point chances and Nadal is snarling and fist pumping to himself already. The Spaniard holds after a long, 11-minute deuce game, and he's up 4-2.
4:10 a.m. ET | Nadal leads 3-2
At 30-love Nadal gets up on the baseline to return Djokovic's second serve and he rips a flat forehand that catches Djokovic on his heels. Good play for Nadal. He needs to hit his forehand flat in this match, which is a shot he hit so well when he won here in 2009, and a shot that will keep Djokovic from going on the offensive off Nadal's heavy top-spin shots that can float up into the power zone.
We get our first deuce game on a Djokovic forehand error and Nadal earns a break point with an amazing scramble out wide to get a Djokovic volley back. The ball barely clears the net and Djokovic puts the volley back to Nadal's backhand side. He eats that ball for lunch, firing a crosscourt passing shot to win the point.
On the next point Nadal steps in to return Djokovic's second serve but this time he sends his backhand long. He's mixing up his return position nicely though.
At deuce, the two play out a 20-shot rally that has Nadal dictating the point with his backhand. He wins the point with a Djokovic error and on break point Djokovic sends a mid court backhand down the line long and the Serb is angry. He rips off his shirt and throws his racquet to the ground as he goes to his chair to change. He's switched from a white shirt to a black shirt now. Fashion reflecting his mood?
Nadal breaks and he's in the lead. I like what I've seen from him so far. He's thinking out there and not falling into the same defensive patterns that have gotten him in trouble in the past.
4:01 a.m. ET | Set tied 2-2
We have our first long rally of the match. Nadal's quick feet get him around to hit his forehand, which he pounds inside-out to grab control of the court. He wins on an overhead smash and Djokovic looks like he may have tweaked his ankle a bit on a slide. The crowd groans as they show the replay of his stumble on the big screens. He looks fine though, and Nadal is experienced enough to not be disturbed by Djokovic's niggles.
Nadal holds easily. Quality play from both so far but we have yet to see these guys play the pounding tennis they did in New York. They're more like a couple of boxers dancing around the ring throwing soft jabs right now, finding their feet before the haymakers come out.
3:56 a.m. ET | Djokovic leads 2-1
Interesting stat: In three of the past four years, the man who played his semifinal second has won the final. Advantage, Djokovic?
Nadal is still standing deep on his return game, but he's doing so with purpose. He's trying to run around to hit his forehand to take control of the point immediately. We'll see how that plays out. It won't work if he still leaves his returns short.
Djokovic digs out of love-30 to hold with two clean forehand winners. He's hitting it down the line well.
3:51 a.m. ET | Set tied 1-1
Easy love hold from Nadal. He cranked a 125-plus mph serve that missed, but again, it's a positive sign that he's willing to blast his serve at full force.
3:47 a.m ET | Djokovic leads 1-0
After one game, Nadal has been standing five feet behind the baseline to return Djokovic's second serve. He changed the tenor of his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych by moving up on his returns so we'll see if Nadal mixes up his position as the match goes on.
Good intent from Nadal at 30-30 to run around his backhand to hit his forehand. He missed, but that's a positive sign of aggression from the Spaniard.
How are Nole's legs? How is Rafa's head? These are the questions hanging over this men's final, as The Djoker has been more of The Riddler as Nadal gets his seventh chance to try and solve him.
So much of this match is mental for Nadal and he vowed after his loss at the U.S. Open final to "try and find the solutions" when it comes to playing Djokovic. The tactical key for Nadal will be attacking Djokovic's backhand with his forehand, a tough thing to do when Djokovic seems so comfortable taking that backhand high above his shoulders.
Djokovic wins the toss and elects to serve. You have to feel like this first set is huge. In their seven previous meetings at a Slam, the winner of the first set has always gone on to win the match (not counting their 2007 Wimbledon semifinal where Djokovic retired). Then again, Djokovic came back from dropping the first set last year when he won at Indian Wells and Miami. Given his confidence these days it shouldn't faze him.