A 28-match winning streak and a three-year reign as Australian Open champion ended tonight, and so did a string of heartbreaking defeats for Stanislas Wawrinka. The eighth-seeded Swiss, who lost two five-setters to Novak Djokovic in 2013—including a 12-10 fifth set in Melbourne—finally solved the superb Serb, winning 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7.
The only elements of their latest classic that shouldn’t be immortalized are the two points you’re most likely to remember: Djokovic’s painfully costly errors at 30-30 and 30-40 of the final game. Serving to stay in the match for the fourth time, Djokovic was pushed to 30-all and then pushed a sliding volley wide after Wawrinka fought off a strong body serve. The shock of both Wawrinka’s return and Djokovic’s reply was exceeded only by the final mishap, a botched serve-and-volley attempt that sent the defeated champ racing to the locker room.
But for all that Djokovic gave away in that final, unexpected minute, Wawrinka earned himself over the previous four hours. He won the second and third sets after a clinical start by Djokovic, who looked to turn this marathon into a short sprint. But Stan’s subsequent stands made that an impossibility. It also made Djokovic play his best tennis in the fourth set, a set so often noted for high quality in these kinds of extended matches.
Unable to break Wawrinka—or even get a break point—in a four-deuce sixth game, the world No. 2, contending with a somewhat errant backhand, went on to break from 40-0 to reach 5-3. Wawrinka still wouldn’t concede the set without a fight, earning two break points with Djokovic attempting to serve it out. But with roars and serves of fury, Djokovic forced a deciding fifth, the only place he would seemingly surrender his title.
This fifth set may not have been as lengthy as last year’s; the shotmaking may not have been as high quality. And it certainly wasn’t as fluid—play was stopped for five minutes because of a random rain shower. But none of that mattered to anyone invested in this gripping contest. The drama began when Djokovic broke Wawrinka for 2-1—he celebrated like he’d won the match—and then immediately gave it back with a four-error game. It would be the last poor game he’d play until the last game of the match, for Djokovic continuously tested Wawrinka while returning and was efficient on serve. Wawrinka saved break points in the fifth and seventh games; after that, a holding pattern emerged. It came down to who would blink first. Or, as it turned out, twice.
Wawrinka’s win puts him one match away from his first Grand Slam final; Tomas Berdych is his semifinal obstacle. As for Djokovic, he’s now gone one full year without winning a major title. A French Open crown, which would give him the career Slam, is probably the only salve he can think of that would heal his wounds.