MELBOURNE, Australia -- Funny thing about tennis. Players often compete for hours, matches encompassing five sets, dozens of games, hundreds of points, thousands of shots. Yet so many encounters come down to a couple of crucial junctures, a few of what the cliché-prone tell us are "big points."
On Thursday, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal battled for almost four hours. Nadal won in four sets and we were told he "prevailed handily," that "he continued his mastery" of his rival. Even Federer lamented that he wished the match had been closer. Total points won: 146 for Nadal; 130 -- barely 10 percent fewer -- for Federer.
We got an even more vivid example of tennis' razor-thin margins on Friday. In what is certain to be a leading candidate for 2012 match of the year, Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray in the Australian Open semifinals 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5. It's nearly impossible to exaggerate the quality of this match. Run through the checklist of what it is we ask of an epic event -- swaying momentum, courage, accuracy, nerve, offense, defense, drama -- and you mark off the boxes, one by one.
This was less a tennis match than an endurance contest on opposite sides of a net, two supremely fit athletes depleting their reserves of energy -- and then somehow surging and re-surging. Like Mr. T in
"We both went through a physical crisis," Djokovic said.
The match featured 345 points in all -- more of them breathtaking than not. But, as always, the match distilled to a few crucial intervals. After leveling the match at a set apiece, Murray played a heroic third-set tiebreaker and was suddenly a set from taking down the defending champion and notching his first signature Grand Slam win in years. But, his game and his adrenaline levels moving in lock step, Murray was unaccountably flat, failing to hold not once but three times in the fourth set. Moment lost.
"Some of the points in the second and third set, they were brutal. They were so long," Murray said. "I guess it was maybe normal there was a letdown in the fourth set. That was something that I would have liked to have done better, though. I would have liked to have played a better fourth set, got off to a better start. That would have helped."
As the match extended into Saturday (local time) -- the enthralled crowd of 15,000 (Serbian NBA star Vlade Divac and Rod Laver among them) happy to stay -- Djokovic raced to a 5-2 lead. Then, in one of those critical intervals, Murray found yet another gear to win three straight games and close to 5-5. With Djokovic serving, Murray held three break points, de facto match points and unquestionably "Big Points." Djokovic saved them all, one by blasting a go-for-broke forehand, as courageous a shot as you'll ever witness. A minute later he broke Murray -- more "Big Points" -- and won a match that his coach, Marian Vajda, told SI.com was "the best battle I've ever seen Novak take."
Said Djokovic: "It was so close. Both of us believed that we can win, and that's how we played. We played with courage. In decisive moments, we were aggressive and wanting to win."
Only the most hard-hearted won't feel for Murray after a valiant but ultimately devastating comeback attempt fell short. Burdened by expectation and cursed by timing, his exceptional skills have never been quite enough in this extraordinary era of Nadal/Federer/Djokovic. For now, he remains the tennis Sisyphus. He's long past the point of moral victories and consolation prizes, but he ought to leave Melbourne with immense confidence in his fitness level, his improved aggression, his choice of coach, his willingness to fight. Just a few points here and there ...
"Tonight's match was important for many reasons," Murray said. "Obviously, I wanted to win first and foremost. But, also sort of after last year, the year that Novak had, I think there's a very fine line between being No. 1 in the world and being 3 or 4. I think that gap, I feel tonight I closed it. My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me. So [it will] take a lot of hard work, and hopefully I can do it."
As for Djokovic, he'll try his best to recover before he faces Nadal for the third straight Grand Slam final, the only time that's happened on the men's side in the Open Era. Both have different tactics, different strengths and different perspective. But ultimately the goal is the same: Alchemize all those small moments into a Big Prize.
• A day later, analysis and psychoanalysis of Thursday's match is still the hot topic. I think Federer-Nadal matches come in two editions, too. The best-of-five edition and the best-of-three edition. In best-of-three (particularly indoors), Federer can get an early start and finish off Nadal before any attrition issues take root. It's a battle not a war. In best-of-five, Nadal brings his persistence to bear. We can discuss this further in coming weeks -- and I'm sure we will -- but I submit it's so mental at this point.
• I'm getting a bit hoarse discussing this. But the WTA fiddled and dismissed the base and lost control of the message -- and now it's getting drilled. I guarantee you there's been more (mocking and unflattering) coverage of the grunting than the tennis this week. In the United States, everyone from Conan O'Brien (at the 6:40 mark
Ironically, the tipping point may have come with the
• Good catch. We're told he's out with a back injury following spinal surgery and then an (unrelated) elbow injury.
• I can confirm your unconfirmed reports. Tickets are still available. Depending on how pugnacious you want to be, you could use this tidbit to indict grunting, question fairness of equal prize money or blame Tennis Australia for giving the men preferential sessions.
But for now, I think it's largely a matter of price point. My seatmate bought a friend a pair of tickets for a late-tournament session and spent more than $400. Wow. I think most casual fans might part with $200 to see a Nadal or Federer or Djokovic but resist that much money for less-accomplished or prominent players.
• Yes, money screeches, too, doesn't it?
• Thanks. The point of
• From the equine's oral cavity. Eric says: "I could write a book in response to that question. You want an answer or a thesis???"
• Shout-out to American junior Mackenzie McDonald, who came from 0-6, 0-4 down to win his quarterfinal match. (He lost in the semifinals.)
• David of New York: "Here's where the
• Adam of Chicago: "One of your readers asked if there was a way to watch the Aussie Open without ESPN. You should have mentioned the fantastic tournament website. There are some country restrictions but if you live in the United States, you can watch AOTV. It plays tons of matches live for free. I've been losing lots of sleep as a result since the matches tend to stretch into the wee hours due to the time difference."
• Dear manufacturer: I realize it's subversive and meant facetiously, but when you send press releases touting your player's "juiced-up performance" you are doing them no favors.
• Matthew of Fresno, Calif. "I just wanted to point you toward
• Props to Doyle S. for suggesting that the winner of Azarenka-Sharapova gets a wild card into