Monday 21 October 2019

Djokovic soars to new level in 'perfect' match

Seventh heaven: Novak Djokovic celebrating with the Australian Open trophy which he also won in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. Photo: Getty Images
Seventh heaven: Novak Djokovic celebrating with the Australian Open trophy which he also won in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016. Photo: Getty Images

Simon Briggs

After his flawless demolition of Lucas Pouille in his Australian Open semi-final, Novak Djokovic said that he felt "divine".

His biggest challenge after the final yesterday was to come up with an even stronger word because this was tennis from another planet.

On paper, the 53rd meeting between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal promised to be one of the best finals in history. What we got instead was one of the best performances.

Nadal is not just the world No 2, but one of the greatest players in the game's history. Yet he was rendered helpless by the depth, speed and angle of the balls flying at him.

The last time these two met in the Australian Open final, it took Djokovic five hours and 53 minutes to inch his way to victory. Yesterday, the Serb needed only 124 minutes to wrap up a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 rout.

It was the first time Nadal had failed to win a set in a Major final. The result arrived so suddenly that broadcasters around the world were left wondering how to fill all their dead airtime.

The signs were ominous for Nadal from the start. Djokovic arrived on the court in his most loose-limbed, serene state of mind. He held serve to love without expending a drop of sweat and then broke in turn for 2-0, striking one backhand winner with both feet off the ground. On every shot, the sound of the ball on his racket was as crisp as biting an apple.

The commentary team on local television included a pair of Major champions in Lleyton Hewitt and Jim Courier. Both picked up on the hesitancy in Nadal's game, the Spaniard's sense of tightness and anxiety. It was understandable. Who wouldn't be uncomfortable when facing this bombardment?

Nadal acknowledged after the match that he had been short of his best. The problem, he said, was his lack of matches since his last tournament: September's US Open.

"It was unbelievable the way that he played, no doubt about that," said Nadal. "But at the same time, it is true that physically I was not able.

"I think I was playing great during both weeks in offensive positions, but because of the things that happened to me in terms of surgery (an ankle operation in November) then what happened in Abu Dhabi (where he strained a thigh muscle) I was not able to work that much the defensive game."

Given the lack of rhythm in his shots, Nadal did extraordinarily well to reach the middle of the second set with only one break of serve against him, a tribute to his bulldog spirit, but on Djokovic's serve, he won just a single point from his first six games as a receiver.

Struggles

Nadal struggled and strained, but for all the good it did, he might as well have sat and watched the ball go by.

The crowd did their best to lift Nadal, recognising that their night might be over much earlier than they had hoped. But nothing worked.

He had one break point in the third set - the only one he was able to chisel out in the entire match - but promptly dumped a regulation backhand into the net. Djokovic finished the job when Nadal sprayed another wonky groundstroke long.

As for the bigger picture, he had just become the first man to win seven Australian Opens, moving beyond a three-way tie with Roy Emerson and Roger Federer.

Remarkably, he has never lost here in a final. And by claiming a 15th Major, he also moved clear of Pete Sampras into sole possession of the third place on the all-time ladder.

"It ranks right at the top," said Djokovic, of the level of his performance.

"In semi-finals and finals, I think I made 15 unforced errors in total in two matches. It's quite pleasantly surprising to myself, as well. Under the circumstances, it was truly a perfect match."

Djokovic, however, is increasingly looking like he could leave this era of giants as the ultimate champion. He already has winning records against every significant opponent, and if he overcomes Nadal on the clay in June, he will achieve the 'Novak Slam' - four consecutive major titles - for the second time. Neither Federer nor Nadal has managed it even once.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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