In certainly the longest and arguably one of the greatest grand slam singles final in the history of professional tennis, Novak Djokovicoutlasted Rafael Nadal over five hours, 53 minutes to win a third Australian Open title yesterday.
The players walked on court at 7.30pm Melbourne time and it was 1.37am by the time Djokovic completed a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 win.
Minutes earlier, at 4-4 in an electrifying fifth set, an exhausted Djokovic had been spread-eagled on the court after losing a 31-shot rally – the longest of the match. He seemed barely able to pick himself and his racket up, but he somehow lifted himself for one last effort, beating Nadal for the seventh time in a final since March.
The 24-year-old Djokovic tore off his shirt in celebration. He went to his support camp and repeatedly thumped the side of the arena in front of them in delight and relief.
As the players waited for the trophy presentation, Nadal leaned on the net, while Djokovic sat on his haunches. Eventually, a nearby official took pity and they were given chairs and a bottle of water each.
“We made history tonight and unfortunately there couldn’t be two winners,” said Djokovic, the winner of five grand slam titles and four of the last five major championships.
Djokovic became the fifth man since the Open era began in 1968 to win three successive major finals, joining Nadal, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Rod Laver.
He acknowledged that the success had edged out his maiden triumph at Wimbledon last July as the best moment of his career to date.
“Wimbledon is right up there because it was the tournament I always wanted to win but this comes out on top because we played for almost six hours, it was incredible,” he said.
“It was the longest grand slam final of all time. Just hearing that fact makes me cry. I am very proud to be a part of history.
“I had a lot of chances to win it in four sets but he deserved to prolong it and then really both of us could have won the match, it could have gone either way.”
In the most devastating of circumstances, Nadal became the first man in the Open era to lose three consecutive grand slam finals. He was beaten in four sets by Djokovic at last year’s Wimbledon and US Open.
“I think we played a great tennis match. I enjoyed being part of this event and this match,” Nadal said. “I am not happy to lose the final, yes, but that’s one of the losses that I am more happy [about] in my career.”
Having reduced Roger Federer to tears when he won the title over five sets in 2009, Nadal managed to maintain his composure during the on-court speeches – and even managed a joke.
“Good morning, everybody,” Nadal said, earning laughs and loud applause from the crowd. “Congratulations to Novak and his team. They deserve it. They are doing something fantastic, so congratulations.”
The previous longest major singles final was Mats Wilander’s win over Ivan Lendl at the US Open in 1988, which lasted four hours, 54 minutes. The longest Australian Open final also involved Wilander in 1988, when the Swede beat Pat Cash. Yesterday’s was also the longest in the tournament history.
A tense, error-strewn opening set offered no indication of the high drama to follow. In hot, humid conditions, Nadal, trying to step up to the baseline to take the initiative, took it after 80 minutes – two minutes short of the entire women’s final the previous day.
Nadal had only lost once in 134 grand slams matches after winning the first set, but he found his serve coming under increasing pressure, and Djokovic took advantage of a double fault in the 10th game to take the second set.
Nadal looked to be visibly flagging in the third set as Djokovic broke twice, but in the fourth set, the Spaniard dug in and regained his momentum in the tiebreaker, reeling off four successive points from 5-3 down to take the match into a decider.
The pair broke each other early in the final set, before Djokovic made the decisive break in the 11th game and held his serve to seal a famous victory.