You know a match is a good one when neither player can fathom the shots that his opponent is pulling off. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic spent a fair amount of Friday shaking their heads and smiling in rueful disbelief at their rival’s preposterous play. Nadal couldn’t believe Djokovic’s lunging, line-licking returns, or his above-the-shoulder tomahawk forehand winners. As for Novak, he looked for help from his coaches after Rafa dug one more impossible get out of the clay, or hooked another forehand down the line on the dead run. Alas, there was no help for either man. Rafa and Nole were back where they belong, way out on the Grand Slam high wire again.
This epic was a mirror image of their last one, in the 2012 Australian Open final. That day it had been Nadal who had survived a near-death experience in the fourth set, won it in a tiebreaker, and taken a 4-2 lead in the fifth before watching Djokovic storm back for the title. Today it was Nole who broke Rafa at 3-4 in the fourth and again at 5-6, grabbed that set in a tiebreaker, and led 4-2 in the fifth before watching Nadal take it all away, 9-7. In each of those matches, the loser was haunted by a stunning, crucial lapse. In Australia, with a chance to go up 5-2 in the fifth, Nadal had missed the easiest of backhand passing shots. In Paris, serving at 4-3 in the final set, two games from victory and a chance at his first French Open title, Djokovic gave away a point when he ran into the net after hitting what would have been a winning overhead.
In Melbourne, it took these two nearly six hours to decide a winner; today the end came in a relatively brisk four hours and 37 minutes. But this match lacked for nothing. It had the elegantly brutal corner-to-corner rallies that we expect from these two; as always, Djokovic pressed forward, forced to throw caution to the wind, while Nadal made him hit one, two, three more perfect shots. It had the ebbs and flows in momentum that have characterized their past matches: Nadal started well, but Djokovic answered in the second set, and came out swinging again at the end of the fourth. Nadal appeared beaten in the fifth, but found his confidence before it was over.
The match also had wind to deal with, time violations to shrug off, a tweener lob from Rafa, and a fifth-set argument between Djokovic and the umpire about watering the court. It was that last, strange dispute, which Djokovic wouldn’t let go, that finally threw off his concentration and led to his demise. In the rain-soaked 2012 final here, the court had been too soggy for Rafa; this year the court was too slippery for Nole. Both times the water gods, and the French officials, left Djokovic high and dry.