It’s a comment wheeled out at the end of many a close match—perhaps a Masters final of three, maybe more, hours. Sometimes it may even be appropriate: Such a one came at the 2009 Madrid Masters, a semi-final of four hours won by Rafael Nadal.
More appropriately, though, these are words attached to a Grand Slam, the ultimate challenge because the prize is so great and the route so long. These are the best-of-five-set marathons with no final tie-break that may be the sixth or even the seventh match in a fortnight.
In recent years, such contests have often also involved Nadal: four hours against Juan Martin del Potro at Wimbledon and against John Isner at Roland Garros in 2011, or four and three-quarter hours against Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
The longest match ever played at the Australian Open was his semi-final against Fernando Verdasco in 2009, all five hours and 10 minutes of it.
Every one of those matches ended in victory for Nadal, but in the match that concluded the 100th playing of the Australian Open in 2012, that most pugnacious and persistent of all tennis athletes endured the longest match ever played at Melbourne Park and lost. If ever there was a match where no-one deserved to lose, it was surely this one.
It brought together No2 seed Nadal against the man he beat in that Madrid final almost three years ago, world No1 Novak Djokovic. In what has become one of the great tennis rivalries of the decade, this was to be their 30th meeting but it came at a highly significant moment in their careers. For although Nadal began 2011 as No1 with a 16-7 head-to-head advantage over Djokovic, he came into 2012 having lost all six intervening matches, all finals, two of them Grand Slams.
Nadal asserted that he would spend the winter searching for a solution to his ‘Djokovic problem’, added some weight to his racket and his serve, and promised it would be a more aggressive Nadal who took on the Serb in their latest final.
What also worked in Nadal’s favour this time was an extra day’s rest between beating Federer in his own semi and watching Djokovic take five sets and little short of five hours to beat Andy Murray in his.
It certainly looked as though the Nadal plan was working, too. Where Djokovic had run away with a two-sets lead in both their Grand Slam finals last year, this time it was Nadal who made the early strike, stepping onto the baseline to receive, and powering down-the-line forehands to force an error on break point. Nadal took a 3-2 lead and a livid Djokovic ripped off his shirt and smashed down his racket.
Now dressed in black rather than white, Djokovic regained his focus and pressured the Nadal serve to break back and consolidate a 5-4 lead. Nadal, though, broke again and took the set with a big body-serve, 7-5.
Already they were 80 minutes down, but an hour later they were level again, thanks to an aggressive early break from Djokovic to lead 3-1. Indeed it looked, at 5-2, as though he would break again, firing returns of the Nadal serve like missiles to the baseline. Instead, Djokovic served his first double fault to hand a break to Nadal but quickly recovered when Nadal did the same. Djokovic levelled the match, 6-4.
They returned to court, drenched in sweat in the sweltering 30+ degree heat and with their ears ringing to a warning about the time taken between points. And although the speed of play did not increase, the speed of the games did. Djokovic retained a tight grip with a crisp and clean opening service game and continued to zip his returns at the feet of Nadal.
The Spaniard seemed forever on the back foot, pounding his left arm like a jackhammer but unable to achieve the penetration of his opponent. Rarely has Nadal shown such frustrated body language as now: He seemed out of ideas, and managed just two winners to Djokovic’s 11, 16 points to the Serb’s 32. Djokovic broke twice to take the set, 6-2.
Nadal was looking into the abyss despite summoning every ounce of muscle power to almost break Djokovic early in the set, but the Serb looked the calmest man in the place. Then came a turn. Down three break points, Nadal responded, fist-pumping, to the challenge: three aces and two winners in his best sequence of points since the opening set. He had denied Djokovic the chance to serve out the match, and a sudden rain shower came like a breath of fresh air to his cause.
Fifteen minutes later, the roof shut and the court mopped by dozens of ball-kids, Djokovic looked completely unaffected by the break and took a clean service game with a running forehand winner on the stretch from behind the baseline and beyond the sideline. Nadal, though, appeared invigorated by the stoppage. His strut was back, his fist clenched and he took the contest beyond midnight to a tie-break.
Buoyed up perhaps by his weary-looking opponent, Nadal served, smashed and sliced winners to counter a 5-3 deficit and levelled the match, 7-6. With 42 points and 11 winners each in the set, the match would come down to one last shoot-out.
Surely now those five semi-final hours would hit the Djokovic legs. Back into black for the denouement, he certainly looked a shadow of the vibrant green torso at the other end of the court. The inevitable break came in the sixth game as Nadal retrieved everything Djokovic could summon and he took what looked like a decisive lead on serve, 30-15. But Nadal hit a fatal loose backhand wide of the sideline and, in the blink of an eye, Djokovic made the break and then won the longest rally of the match to level at 4-4.
Next it was Nadal’s turn to win a 31-stroke rally and survive break points. It was enough to have Djokovic on his back with exhaustion but not enough to prevent the Serb from earning and winning a break point in the 11th game. He had only to summon the energy to serve out the match, but yet again Nadal forced a break back chance.
This time, though, there was no denying the near super-human effort of the world No1. He had just the energy left to hit a huge serve, sink to his knees and then rip off his shirt in slender imitation of the Incredible Hulk.
And so ended 5hrs 53mins of bruising tennis between two of the fittest, grittiest men in this most gladiatorial of sports. Such was the endeavour that they needed chairs to relieve their sinking knees during the presentation ceremony.
Yet for all their physical prowess, it may be their mental resolve and seemingly limitless desire for victory that marks this match down as one the Australian Open’s greatest.
It also promises much for the coming season of three more such Slams and, of course, the Olympics. It will take an Olympian achievement, though, to outclass this one.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge