MELBOURNE: Novak Djokovic was so good, so relentless, so flawless, that Rafael Nadal never stood a chance.
Djokovic reduced one of the greats of the game to merely another outclassed opponent as he condemned Nadal to the most stinging defeat in their long Grand Slam rivalry.
In a breathtakingly mistake-free performance that yielded a remarkably lopsided result, the top-ranked Djokovic overwhelmed Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 on Sunday night to win a record seventh Australian Open championship and a third consecutive Grand Slam title, raising his count to 15 overall.
“Under the circumstances,” Djokovic said, “it was truly a perfect match.” No one who saw it would disagree.
Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, said: “I would describe it as dominance.”
Nadal’s take? “An amazing level of tennis.”
“Unbelievable,” said Nadal’s coach, Carlos Moya. “Novak probably could have won, no matter who the opponent was.”
That Djokovic would produce 34 winners and only nine unforced errors was impressive enough. That it came against Nadal who is ranked second, owns 17 major trophies himself and hadn’t dropped a set in the tournament was hard to comprehend.
Djokovic left Nadal smirking or gritting his teeth or punching his racket strings, unable to compete at all.
“Even if tonight was not my best day of course I had someone that played a lot better than me tonight,” said Nadal. “When the player did almost everything better than you, you can’t complain much.”
So Djokovic added to previous triumphs in Melbourne in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, along with four titles at Wimbledon, three at the US Open and one at the French Open.
He broke his tie with Roger Federer and Roy Emerson for most Australian Open men’s titles. He also broke a tie with his idol, Pete Sampras, for third-most Grand Slam trophies; Djokovic now only trails Federer, with 20, and Nadal.
And he is gaining on them.
Then there’s this tidbit: Djokovic is the only man in tennis history to have a trio of three-straight-Slam streaks.
So let the talk begin about four majors in a row over two seasons, something Djokovic already managed to do from 2015-16. And, what’s more, about a true Grand Slam, winning all four majors in one calendar year, which only has been done by two men, Donald Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.
“I am aware that making history of the sport that I truly love is something special,” the 31-year-old Serb said. “Of course, it motivates me.” He surprised even himself with the way he recovered after problems with his right elbow derailed him.
Djokovic sat out the last half of 2017. He tried to come back at the start of 2018 but was hampered by the elbow and lost in the fourth round in Melbourne. Soon after, he decided to have surgery.
All that is in the past.
He is once again at an elite level. If anything, the gap between him and the rest is growing right now.
“I’m just trying to contemplate on the journey in the last 12 months. I had the surgery exactly 12 months ago,” he said. “To be standing now here in front of you today and managing to win this title and three out of four Slams, this is amazing. I am speechless.”
It was a greater humbling than even the quarter-finals of the 2015 French Open, when Djokovic thrashed Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 to end his six-year winning streak at his favourite claycourt tournament.
Broken in his first service game on Sunday, it was clear not everything was right with the Spaniard when at 4-2, he swung a forehand and completely missed the ball.
He was unable to take a point off Djokovic’s serve until the ninth game, when the Serb was already serving for the first set.
Nadal’s remodelled serve was clinically dismantled, and he punched his racket strings in frustration after giving up two break points in the fourth game of the second.
The Serb threw a fiery glance at his players’ box after breaking to 5-2 and fired two aces to take a two-set lead.
All business, Djokovic marched back to his seat in silence, without so much as a quiet fist-pump.
Nadal battled on but every piece of magic he produced was outdone by the Serbian sorcerer.
The Spaniard scrambled in to feather a sliced drop-shot over the net, raising premature cheers but Djokovic simply swooped on it and sent an even cleverer drop-shot cross-court.
After further baseline punishment, he broke Nadal for the fourth time, pulling him around like a puppet-master before tripping him up with another drop-shot.
Nadal finally prised a break point in the fifth game of the third but it quickly disappeared in a maelstrom of power hitting.
From there, Djokovic knuckled down to complete one of his most stunning victories.
Firing a forehand down the line to bring up two championship points, he converted the second when Nadal struck a backhand long, and the Serb’s reign over Melbourne was restored with a thunderous chorus of Serbian cheers.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2019