MELBOURNE—The first question is: Where do we start? The length, the stats, the twists and turns, the comebacks and chokes, the backhand bombs and skidding gets, the botched drop shots and challenges not made, and the long fifth set that appeared to leave both players with nothing left, until each of them found something more in the final game. How do you sum all of that up in a few hundred words? How do you do justice to barnburning, 25-shot all-court points when the only thing you had time to put down in your notebook was “good rally”?
First things first. No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic beat No. 15 seed Stan Wawrinka, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10 in five hours and two minutes in the fourth round in Rod Laver Arena last night. Coming in, Djokovic was 13-2 against Wawrinka, had won their last 10 matches, and hadn’t lost a set to him since 2009.
Which means the second thing we need to talk about is Stan Wawrinka’s game tonight. I can remember watching these two back in 2006 in Vienna and wondering who would be better. It wasn’t quite so clear then. Two other things were clear about Stan, however: (1) He had the potential to play the way we saw him play tonight, with heavy, brutally beautiful shotmaking; and (2) His backhand was a/the bomb.
In 2011, Wawrinka dropped those backhand bombs on Andy Roddick in a night-match victory here, and he was right back in the same groove for the first two sets tonight. As Lleyton Hewitt said on Australian TV, it’s an impossible shot to read. From a spectator’s point of view, the power, accuracy, and the laser-like trajectory down the line that Wawrinka can get with one hand is always startling, no matter how many times you see it.
Late in the match, he dropped a backhand into the farthest corner, as if here aiming, and hitting, a dime. But the bravest of those shots came on the second match point against him, at 10-11 in the fifth set. As the ball buzzed passed him, Djokovic was left in total, exhausted exasperation. Nole said afterward, “I didn’t feel well on the court in terms of rhythm or striking the ball. But credit to him, he made me run all over the court. He never gave me the same ball. I didn’t know what was coming up next.” Wawrinka finished with 69 winners against 93 unforced errors, and hit 16 aces.
The next thing to talk about, however, is how Wawrinka stopped hitting that backhand down the line, as well as his big crosscourt forehand, at a certain point in the second set. He had won the first set easily, moving Djokovic wide with his forehand and then driving his backhand for winners. He did the same to start the second, as he went up 4-1 and then 5-2. But it was then that Wawrinka began to step back and chip his backhand instead of ripping it, for no apparent reason other than that he was growing cautious with the lead. It cost him. He didn’t have that weapon when he needed it. Serving at 5-3 in the second for a two-set lead, he took a mid-court backhand at break point and, instead of threading it down the line, steered it cross-court. It hit the tape and went out. Djokovic had been allowed into the match.
As for Nole, as he said afterward, he never looked or felt comfortable. He started the night slipping all over the court in new sneakers, and even when he did come back and win the second set, he was broken right away in the third. He was off-balance much of the time, and he even tightened up and dumped his fabled return of serve into the net on a number of crucial points. Djokovic finished with 51 winners against 66 errors. His best play came in patches, and it included some some astonishing high points. But he never settled in and found his most relaxed tennis for a sustained period.
The match reached two peaks, one at the end of the fourth set, which Stan won; and another, higher one at the end of the fifth, which Djokovic won. The first came at 6-5 in the fourth-set breaker. Djokovic had crawled back from 3-6 down, and looked ready to pull off his customary back-to-the-wall Houdini act one more time. At 6-5, the two staged the finest rally of the match, one in which every great stroke was answered with something better, until Wawrinka had a look at a high forehand. Djokovic, at Stan’s mercy, guessed cross-court. Wawrinka went down the line, and we went to a fifth set.
Twenty-one games and 104 minutes later, we reached peak number two. After a series of love holds in which both players looked exhausted, Djokovic did what he does so often, and which is the unique stamp of this champion: He roused himself when it looked like he couldn’t be roused again. On his third match point, the two players ignored exhaustion to stage another classic rally. Again, Wawrinka came forward. Again, he appeared for a split-second to have Djokovic at his mercy. But this time the champion was there for the pass. It wasn’t just any pass, either, but a delicate, dipping, acutely angled crosscourt backhand that seemed to slow down and hang in the air long enough to tantalize the crowd and torture Wawrinka as he lunged for it in vain.
The crowd, which had been intensely caught up in the match from the opening games, when it appeared that we could have an upset on our hands, leapt as Nole raised his arms. The two players embraced at the net, before Djokovic turned and ripped off his shirt. As he said later, it all felt like a rewind of last year’s final (except for the pesky fact that he still has three more matches to play to win the tournament).
“I’m just really full of joy after this match," Djokovic said, more than once, when it was over.
Wawrinka walked off in tears, to a standing ovation. He was told later that a crucial line call that he hadn’t challenged, at break point for him at 4-4 in the fifth, would have gone his way. But he took the high road. “I cannot say I was unlucky for that." he said. "When you play five hours, for sure you have some option to win.”
The mix of shotmaking, physicality, momentum swings, and night-match atmosphere, as well as the all-time great set point in the fourth and match point in the fifth, make me think we’ve already seen the best match of 2013. It’s certainly another in a long line of Aussie Open classics stretching back over the past decade.
Wawrinka, who has never been known as a tremendous fighter, could hold his head up afterward and say that it was the best he had ever played, and that even after the disappointment of losing the second set, he had never gone away.
“At end he was still there,” a shellshocked but not despondent Stan said. “He was playing great tennis. We were both tired. But I really fight like a dog.”
For his part, Djokovic had pulled himself back from the dead one more time. In the interview room, his face still shiny with sweat, he smiled. “I’m happy to be able to fight until the end again." What else can an athlete ask?
Then he stopped for a second and found the only words that could capture the evening.
“I feel sorry that one of us had to lose."