According to the programs distributed to the fans at Melbourne Park, Sunday night marked the 100th men's final of the Australian Open. But what followed was less a tennis match than a ground war, cage fight and Ironman event rolled into one. For five hours and 53 minutes, well into Monday morning, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played a game of Can-you-top-this? that would have been preposterous had it not been so heroic.
This is an article from the Feb. 6, 2012 issue
The two top-ranked players competed as if every point carried a price in blood. Each asked and re-asked questions of the other, the answers ever more forceful and eloquent. They explored the borders of their physical limits. This was product placement for endurance, strength, power, accuracy and will, a six-hour infomercial selling the notion that tennis players—yes, tennis players—might be the finest athletes on the planet.
Giving the occasion still more weight was the context. Over the past year Djokovic has knocked Nadal from his perch atop the ATP rankings, beating him in all six of their meetings in 2011. He did what was previously thought impossible: He bent Rafa's spirit to the breaking point. What did you do on your winter vacation? Nadal spent most of his devoted to the singular task of, as he puts it, "finding the Novak Solution." That meant working on his court positioning, shoring up a backhand that Djokovic had picked apart, assessing tactics and even tinkering with the weight of his racket to reclaim the status that had been his.
As for Djokovic, he came to Melbourne fresh off one of the most comprehensively dominating years in men's tennis, a 70--6 campaign that encompassed three major titles. "I know I have a bull's-eye," he said. "I am the man to beat." And he nearly was beaten in the semifinals, pushed to five sets by Andy Murray. Now he was supposed to recuperate within 48 hours and defend his title against the extraordinarily fit Nadal?
The final, though, ultimately wasn't about Nadal's X's and O's or Djokovic's arms and legs as much as it was about their combined guts and heart. The players swapped the first two sets, Nadal relying on his side-winding lefty forehand, the Serb on his superior return of serve. They split the next two sets as well, each making improbable plays and imposing their physicality as momentum swayed from one side of the net to the other almost as rapidly as the shots. Both players found reserves of energy, depleted them and tapped into new ones. "I felt my body started to slow down," said Djokovic, "but on the other hand I was aware of the fact that he's not feeling that great and fresh [either]."
Finally, at 5--5 in the fifth set, Djokovic marshaled his courage and made a last surge, breaking Nadal's serve. A few minutes later it was 1:37 a.m.—not an empty seat among the arena's 14,820—when Djokovic smote a reverse crosscourt forehand to win the 369th and final point of the longest Grand Slam final ever played. Game. Set. Matchless: 5--7, 6--4, 6--2, 6--7, 7--5. "We live for these matches," says Djokovic. "We're trying to dedicate all our lives to this sport to come to the situation where we play a six-hour match for a Grand Slam title."
Let the debate rage over whether this affair eclipsed the 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Roger Federer as the Greatest Match Ever Played. For now say this: Sunday's titanic final wasn't just the culmination of a sensational tournament; it stands for now as the signature match for the current gilded age of men's tennis. The Occupy Wall Street movement may have found sympathy throughout the globe, spawning spin-off groups and demonstrations from Auckland to Zurich. But its message of distributing wealth more equitably doesn't echo in this sport.
With about 400 full-time ATP touring pros, the sport's One-Percenters comprise, by order of ranking, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray. Far from begrudging the elite their success, the Republic of Tennis accepts and admires the heavy concentration of riches. The other players, the 99%, accept their station in life and mount little resistance. As fifth-ranked David Ferrer of Spain said last week with a shrug, "The top [four] are at a better level, just too good."
The NFL can have its Any Given Sunday. Baseball can delude itself into thinking that small-market teams have a chance to compete. But in individual sports, dominant, predictable champions are preferable to parity. Consider: Over the last 28 Grand Slam events—a span of seven years—all but one have been claimed by Djokovic, Nadal or Federer. One of those three has held the No. 1 ranking for eight uninterrupted years, and the top four have won a wildly disproportionate amount of prize money (more than $81 million combined). Of the last 28 Grand Slam semifinal berths, 24 were claimed by Fedalmurovic. "We've never seen anything like this," says Mats Wilander, the 47-year-old seven-time Grand Slam champion who now works as a commentator. "It's almost like there are two tours, the main one and the one with the top four guys. And it's great."
The supremacy of the Fab Four was on vivid display Down Under. Each man reached the semifinals (see also: sunrise, east), where they played dazzling matches that showcased both the talent and psychodynamics of the One-Percenters. Triggered by a disagreement over ATP politics and policies, a chill has settled over the Federer-Nadal rivalry. When the two played last Thursday for the 27th time, there was no overt hostility but no pleasantries either. Nadal's pugnacious style again trumped Federer's elegance, and the Spaniard won 6--7, 6--2, 7--6, 6--4, pushing his head-to-head record to 18--9 and reigniting the discussion: How can Federer be considered the Greatest Ever when he fares so dismally against his chief rival? (Answer: That is, unquestionably, a mark against Federer, but it's small potatoes next to the mountain of evidence in his favor.)
The following night Djokovic and Murray—born within a week of each other in May 1987—battled for nearly five hours. Murray recently hired stoic Ivan Lendl, an eight-time Slam winner, as a coach, an attempt to add some ruthlessness; but ultimately he blinked first, and Djokovic prevailed 6--3, 3--6, 6--7, 6--1, 7--5. Afterward Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, wondered if he would ever again see his protégé win such a ferocious battle. Two days later he had his answer. "What these top guys are doing, where they are taking the sport," he says, "you almost can't imagine it."
If the men's game is an oligarchy, the women's game has been a study in anarchy. So many players have won majors only to vaporize at the next event; meanwhile, the top-ranked player, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, achieved her status despite never having won a Grand Slam final. This tournament may finally mark the formation of a new ruling class. When Wozniacki lost in the quarterfinals, she was evicted from the top spot. And the soon-to-be No. 1, Victoria Azarenka, immediately showed her bona fides.
For the first six rounds Azarenka, 22, blazed through the draw, marrying authoritative ball striking with deft defense. She gained more attention, though, for her accompanying sound track. Punctuating each shot with a noise resembling a stuck pig in labor, Azarenka is a charter member of what a Sydney Morning Herald columnist called "the deci-belles," the raft of players who grunt, shriek and utter other sounds—wail tones, as it were. Australia's Channel 7 went so far as to create a grunt-o-meter that likened various player emissions to lawn mowers, blenders and low-flying airplanes. By the time Azarenka faced the comparably voluble Maria Sharapova in the final, the WTA had vowed, belatedly, to address the issue of noise pollution.
Last Saturday night, though, Azarenka made her loudest noise when she announced herself as a champion. Showing auspicious poise for a player competing in her first major final, she didn't merely meet the moment; she kicked its Az. After a shaky beginning Vika seized 12 of the last 13 games, winning 6--3, 6--0. "There was so much at stake," she said, "I told myself there's no way I'm going to lose, no way."
A native of Belarus, Azarenka left Minsk at 14 to train in Scottsdale, Ariz., living at the home of family friend Nikolai Khabibulin, an NHL goalie. She turned pro that same year, and though she rose steadily over the next nine years, she was regarded as a slugger, long on power and short on temper. She claimed that her moment of reckoning came last year when her grandmother—an indefatigable woman living a sparse existence in Eastern Europe—scolded Azarenka for lacking perspective. Chastened, she improved her attitude. "I appreciate the challenges," she says. "And if expectations are higher now, great. I'm still hungry!"
To traffic in understatement, so is Djokovic. Once a bystander to the Federer-Nadal rivalry, he has won four of the last five major titles. He's also the clear-cut No. 1 at a time when the men's game has never been stronger, and his aura of invincibility only intensified after last weekend. It seemed unreasonable to expect him to replicate the standard he set last year. Now? At the French Open he'll try to win his fourth straight major, already christened the Djoker's Slam.
But that was hardly top of mind when he emerged from the locker room well after 2:30 a.m., greeted by a throng of admirers that included former NBA center Vlade Divac, now president of the Serbian Olympic Committee. Djokovic radiated both joy and exhaustion. Yes, he enjoyed the struggle on court. But, damn, was he tired. "I'm going to need a massage tomorrow," he said, "and so is Rafa."
See, One-Percenters really can be job creators.