Novak Djokovic breaks Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal duopoly
The quality of the Serb's second grand slam win shows he's ready to join the high table of men's tennis
It’s been just a fortnight; two weeks; 14 days; the length of a standard British holiday; and the duration of a tennis Major.
The Australian Open has shown just how much water can flow under the bridge in such a time-span.
With the draws done, the pundits placed their bets, the journalists made their predictions, and the fans prepared their banners. Everyone had a view on who would take to the court at the end of those 14 drama-packed days.
There were column inches on whether home favourite Lleyton Hewitt could make one last assault on the tournament. There was huge anticipation surrounding the return of former world No4, Juan Martin Del Potro. And there was the newly-promoted world No4 Robin Soderling to assess: was he really on a par with Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthe top four’?
Possible upsets were, as usual, eagerly sought. Gilles Simon, the proud owner of the most recent ATP title in Sydney, met Roger Federer in round two. It was tough, but the reigning Australian champion forged onward and upwards, and the odds on his retaining the title shortened with each successive win.
There were some raised eyebrows at the unexpected progress of Marin Cilic, who had won no more than one match in a tournament since the first week in August 2010.
And, as with every Major tournament, a new talent strode into the limelight to thrill the lovers of the underdog. Alexandr Dologopolov did not just take out No13 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but then left Soderling for dead. What’s more, he did it with a fresh and infectious style of tennis that set the headlines alight.
Then there was Tomas Berdych rediscovering his Wimbledon form at just the right time. He made it effortlessly into the quarter-finals, as did the long-life-battery-driven David Ferrer and the new-Swiss-on-the-block, Stanislas Wawrinka: dangerous dark horses, all of them.
Such punditry is the bread and butter of Grand Slam journalism. But few really doubted that the dominant four of men’s tennis would safely take their allotted semi-final places: Federer and Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
And, tough call though it was, the final was destined to be Roger-and-Rafa. After all, one or other had featured in every Major bar one for the last six years and they had won all but two of the last 23. They were both fit, healthy and getting better with every round.
But 14 days has proved to be a mighty long time in the unfolding story of the Australian Open.
Stop the clock, take a deep breath and rewind the hands to the Nadal quarter-final. He faced, in Ferrer, a man he had beaten in their previous seven matches but, out of the blue, Nadal pulled a thigh muscle in only the second game and was run ragged into a straight sets defeat.
It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and Ferrer’s removal of Nadal, following Dolgopolov’s antics in the earlier rounds, meant that Murray had to beat just one top-10 player -Ferrer himself -to reach his third Major final.
The fly in Murray’s ointment was that -as in his previous two finals -he seemed destined to face the man who had twice snuffed out his chance of glory. Federer was making ever more sinister progress through his half and had almost every expert engraving his name on the trophy.
He faced Djokovic, the man he had beaten 13 times in their 19 meetings and, more to the point, in their last three matches. But in their last encounter at a Major, only four months ago on New York’s hard courts, Djokovic scored a highly significant five-set win.
Since then, Djokovic has burgeoned with confidence, his shoulders growing broader before the eyes, his head held higher. His form in Melbourne stoked that confidence with a resounding win over Berdych, and his tennis against Federer in their semi-final was nothing short of superb.
The first set was as close as it could be, with not a break point in sight. Djokovic then bombarded Federer in the tie-break with ground strokes cracked to both corners and from both his backhand and forehand wings.
With one set in the bag, the Serb briefly lost his way, breaks were exchanged and unforced errors peppered both men’s games. But the Federer serve slipped to its worst of the tournament -47 per cent -so while only three points separated them in the set, Djokovic broke at 5-5 and served out to 7-5.
The third set, though shorter, also showed little between them on serve, on break points or in points won: 40 to 39. But it was in the crucial points that Djokovic scored and he took three games in a row to win the match 6-3.
The earth seemed to pause on its axis as the tennis world acclimatised to the prospect of a Major final without either top seed in attendance. Then the analyses of Djokovic versus Murray came thick and fast.
They were friends, frequently practised together, got on like a house on fire. They were born within a week of each other, played their first Major and won their first ATP title in the same year, lost their first Major final to Federer in the US Open. Both are renowned for their backhands, their drop shots, their movement and their touch. In short, this final could go either way.
If this year’s Australian Open was proving that 14 days is a long time in tennis, it also showed that two hours 40 minutes can be just as significant: in fact significant enough to raise one player to an entirely new status.
Djokovic opened the match with a love service game while Murray battled through almost a quarter of an hour, five deuces and a break point to hold his.
Indeed few of the points were short. It took 35 minutes to play just five games, it was a 38-shot rally that brought up two break points for Djokovic in the 10th game, and the clock ticked to one hour before Djokovic broke the Murray serve for a 6-4 for the set.
Djokovic opened serve in the second set, though he little needed that advantage. He broke Murray’s first service game and repeated the feat to go 4-0 up. Murray ran, chased, retrieved, sliced and whipped, but Djokovic seemed almost airbourne. There was little he failed to reach and few shots that he failed to return.
He played Murray like a novice, pulling and pushing him to extreme corners, teasing him in with a drop and lobbing him onto the baseline. If Murray threatened, the Serb simply switched on a backhand winner down the line, or round the post, or across the court, or over his head.
It was brutal and relentless, the more so for the lack of histrionics or fist-pumping that has so often characterised the Serb’s matches.
Djokovic’s first sign of nerves came at 5-0, and Murray took advantage of a couple of tight shots to break, but it merely delayed an inevitable 6-2 set.
The two men twice exchanged breaks in the opening games of the third set. Djokovic’s answer was simple: up the ante and turn defence into attack at every opportunity. Another break at the optimum time had him serving for match and title, 6-3.
These two men, widely regarded as the second pair in the tennis hierarchy, have been bracketed together for years, yoked by their ages, weight of expectation, an inability to keep emotions in check, but with sparkling talent at their disposal.
But the brash confidence that won the Serb his first Australian title at just 20 has now been reined in, marshalled and honed into a mature confidence that has allowed his talent to flower. He is combining a solid, patient game of tactical intelligence with an athleticism that is the equal of any man on the tour. He is fast and accurate, aggressive but with outstanding defensive skills. And he has now broken the Federer-Nadal stranglehold on the Majors.
Murray has, for the time being at least, been left behind to ponder whether he can emulate his friend. Meanwhile, Nos1 and 2 in the world will have to get used to some company in the stratosphere.