• What the Deuce

Raising the bar

Jo Carter January 31, 2012
PTI UK: As good as tennis gets?

Back in 2005, we thought nobody could beat Roger Federer. Then Rafael Nadal arrived on the scene and took tennis to a new level. The rivalry between Nadal and Federer was hailed as the greatest of all time - nobody could touch the top two in men's tennis.

Unlike Nadal, who burst onto the scene, winning the French Open at the age of 18, Novak Djokovic had been around for a while, a top-four player, but few believed he could ever surpass the Roger-Rafa show.

It looked like Djokovic was destined to be a one-hit wonder - his sole major - the Australian Open back in 2008 his only taste of grand slam glory.

But he burst out of the blocks last year to regain the Australian Open crown, which prompted a string of titles in Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome before he finally suffered his first defeat in 44 matches at the hands of Federer at Roland Garros.

People said his form would not last, that he could not physically maintain his charge for an extended period of time. Admittedly, Djokovic did limp over the finish line at the end of the 2011 season, but not before winning ten titles including three grand slams.

Ahead of their Australian Open final, Djokovic may have had the mental edge over Nadal, having won all six meetings in 2011, but Nadal had enjoyed the luxury of two days off, while Djokovic had needed nearly five hours to see off Andy Murray.

The world No. 1 looked jaded, fighting fatigue as Nadal won the opening set. But he fought back, and looked to be firmly on course for victory only for Nadal to snatch the fourth set tiebreak and force a fifth set.

When Nadal grabbed a break early in the fifth set, the Spaniard was heading for grand slam title No. 11, but as it approached 1am in Melbourne, Djokovic dug deep and found a little in reserve. The fuel light had come on hours ago, but both players kept going, running on fumes.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were exhausted after their six-hour epic © PA Photos

When it was finally all over, after five hours and 53 minutes of relentless tennis, Djokovic and Nadal looked more like punch drunk boxers who had come through the full 12 rounds. They were spent, physically and emotionally.

It was a performance for the ages, and it took ages. As the longest grand slam final in the Open era, it broke a few records. It may be some way off the longevity of the Isner-Mahut marathon at Wimbledon in 2010, but the quality of tennis defied belief as Djokovic remained on course for the Grand Slam.

"I'm gonna have to start winning some of the matches to call it a rivalry," Andy Roddick once said of his rivalry with Roger Federer, and the same could be said of Nadal-Djokovic. Nadal still leads the head to head with 16 wins to Djokovic's 14, but with the Serb having won the last seven encounters, you get the impression Nadal needs to crack the puzzle and work out how to beat Djokovic if the rivalry is to flourish.

That said, Nadal has won 18 matches against Federer, while the Swiss, widely regarded to be the greatest player of all time, has beaten Nadal just nine times. Does a rivalry need to be equal to be great?

Federer did for tennis what Tiger Woods did for golf. He raised the bar, and the sport is still reaping the benefits. Nadal pushed that bar up a little bit further, and now it's Djokovic's turn to set the standard.

It remains to be seen if Nadal-Novak rivalry can match that of Rafa-Roger, but one thing's for sure, if we get another contest like Sunday's final, we're in for a real treat.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk