At one point during the Australian Open final, one began to wonder how badly this match would mentally scar Rafael Nadal, the man who has made a career out of fighting back against the odds. Give him an inch and he will take a mile. But so comprehensive... so complete was Novak Djokovic’s victory that talk about a mental block wouldn’t be far off the target.
Few are surprised by Djokovic’s win over RafaelNadal. His record at the Australian Open, his superior head-to-head against Nadal on hard courts and his backhand gave him the edge against Nadal in almost every analysis. But it was just an edge. Instead, what we witnessed was a never-seen-before dismantling of the Spaniard’s game.
Their only previous meeting at the Australian Open was in the 2012 final. That epic match lasted nearly six hours. The 2019 final, by sharp contrast, was done and dusted in two hours and four minutes. It was shorter than the women’s final.
Nadal’s famed matador spirit couldn’t help him in a match where the world No 1 played with a surgeon’s precision. The serves weren’t being fired down at great pace, instead they were being placed with great care into spots that would trouble Nadal the most. The depth of the ground strokes meant that the World No 2 was constantly on the backfoot. The backhand nullified the Spaniard’s feared topspin forehand. And then there was the unreal coverage around the court.
Djokovic dealt with everything thrown as him with such a level of ease that it somehow managed to break Nadal’s indomitable spirit. To see the 32-year-old look this helpless was unnerving. He looked at the skies for a sign from the gods. He looked in the direction of his box with Carlos Moya shouting words of encouragement. The crowd desperately tried to cheer him on. Nothing helped. Perhaps, nothing could because, on this day, the Serb seemed to be invincible… a player without any flaws.
Unmatched level from Djokovic
Coming into the final, Nadal had committed an average of 18 unforced errors and 33 winners in a match. In the final, his unforced errors piled up to 28 while the winners dropped to 21. The number is even more glaring because Djokovic had only nine errors to 34 winners.
Almost everything the Serb had done in the tournament up to this point seemed designed to help him raise his game for the final. In his first four matches, Djokovic made 133 unforced with 50 of them coming in the fourth-round match against Daniil Medvedev alone. In the next three matches – quarters, semis and the final combined – he made just 23 unforced errors.
Yes, it wasn’t Nadal’s night but perhaps no one would have been able to match Djokovic’s level on Sunday. He seemed fit, rested and motivated – in the much the same way as he did when he was when he worked his way to the “Nole Slam” back in 2016. With the win at the Australian Open, his unbeaten streak at Grand Slams has now been extended to 21 matches and during this run he has dropped just eight sets.
Come the French Open, he will aim to hold all the four Grand Slams for the second time in his career. Nadal might have something to say on the red clay of Roland Garros but on the basis of his form since Queen’s 2018, Djokovic seems untouchable.
Djokovic’s record since Queen’s
Queen’s - F
Wimbledon - W
Toronto - R3
Cincinnati - W
US Open - W
Shanghai - W
Paris - F
ATP Finals - F
Doha - SFs
Australian Open - W
Djokovic’s record against Roger Federer and Nadal – two players who are still at the very peak of men’s tennis – since 2011 is quite exemplary as well. The 31-year-old has beaten Federer 19 times in 28 meetings since then (the overall record stands at 25-22) and against Nadal, his record is 21-9 (the overall record stands at 27-25).
His domination of these two greats suggests that if he can stay fit and focussed, there are few in the men’s game who can stop him. The new generation looks like it will need time to raise its game to the level of the Big Three. The Serb has a game without any clear flaws and because his defence is so impeccable, the opponent comes into the match knowing that it won’t be easy, perhaps thinking similar thoughts to what Nadal did today.
The world has already witnessed what a Djokovic at his best is capable of.
Pete Sampras had hailed Djokovic’s 2011 season – when he won ten tournaments inlduing all the Majors barring French Open – as the best he had ever seen in his lifetime, calling it “one of the best achievements in all of sports.”
The Serb followed it up with an even more stellar season in 2015, when he once again won three Grand Slams and became only the third man to reach all four Major finals in a season (after Rod Laver and Roger Federer).
Now, since Wimbledon 2018, he has found all the gears clicking together again leaving us all to wonder in which historic direction this awe-inspiring run will take him. Because as things stand, there clearly is no stopping him.