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 Rocky III, before the match, Murray's coach, Ivan Lendl, offered a one-word prediction for the evening: pain. He got that right. After so many 40-ball rallies, so much scrambling and bending and locomoting, both players became the embodiments of attrition. And then they soldiered on. A second wind? They reached that by the first hour.
"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.
I feel like all Roger and Rafa encounters in recent Grand Slam history come in two editions, Standard Edition and Special Edition. Thursday we got the standard edition, and at the 2009 Aussie Open we were served the Special Edition. Either way, the result is the same.-- Rahul, New York
• 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 like both Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. I will not, however, watch Screamapova and Azashrieka play in the AO final. Will the WTA ever address this issue? If I had tickets and was there, I would go to the beach instead.-- Clark Wood, Sherwood, Ariz.
• 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 here) to Diane Sawyer has had a good laugh. This should be a case study in a public relations class.
Ironically, the tipping point may have come with the Caroline Wozniacki-Kim Clijsters YouTube clip or the remarks the other day from Aggie Radwanska. The WTA's fallback had been: "The players haven't complained." (This, of course, was terribly tone deaf to all the affronted fans.) Now, that's clearly not the case. I spoke with Svetlana Kuznetsova on Friday, and you can add her as another player who claims grunting is both a distraction and in need of legislating.
Missing from the 2012 Australian Open: defending men's wheelchair champ -- in singles and doubles -- Shingo Kunieda. What's the scoop?-- Helen, Philadelphia
• Good catch. We're told he's out with a back injury following spinal surgery and then an (unrelated) elbow injury.
I've heard (unconfirmed) reports that the Australian Open women's singles semifinals didn't sell out, and that there are still tickets available for Saturday's final. Do you know if this is truly the case, and if so is this a regular occurrence? I thought the Grand Slams typically sold out. It might be easy -- perhaps accurate? -- to attribute this to fans tiring of players who shriek, but I would be interested in what tennis insiders make of this.-- Jack, Connecticut
• 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.
With the great grunter girls of our generation, Sharapova and Azarenka, making the final, shouldn't we all boycott to send a message to the WTA, sponsors and TV companies (can't they drone out the noise anyway?) that grunting is a major turn-off? Literally. Who is with me?-- James Kane, Hamilton, Scotland
• Yes, money screeches, too, doesn't it?
Jon, seriously, your fact checker needs to have your back. Rafael Nadal is not married to Mirka, nor does he use a Wilson racket and he is left-handed.-- Wendy, Atlanta
• Thanks. The point of the column was that the roles were reversed Thursday; in some respects, it seemed Federer and Nadal had traded places. (Federer played as a point-prolonging grinder, Nadal the dazzling aggressor.) I must have awakened to 50 emails from you guys telling me -- sometimes courteously, sometimes not -- that Nadal was not married to Mirka, Federer didn't sprint to the baseline, etc.
I had a doubles question: So I noticed that Eric Butorac just beat his old doubles partner (Jean-Julien Rojer) in the round of 16 with his new partner (Bruno Soares). I was just wondering how emotional those kinds of things get, or is it just business? Doubles partner switching has always been really fascinating to me, since you have to spend so much time developing a relationship, then the next week you might have to actually cost your ex-partner money by beating them.-- Josh, Mankato, Minn.
• 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 Petra Kvitova pjod originated."
• 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 an article I wrote last week (even though it was only posted on Monday) about how dominant the Big Four have been at Grand Slams."
• Props to Doyle S. for suggesting that the winner of Azarenka-Sharapova gets a wild card into this.