It’s a magnificent seven. Novak Djokovic eclipsed the six Australian Open titles won by Roy Emerson and Roger Federer to take sole ownership of the men’s singles record at Melbourne Park with a resounding 6-3 6-2 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal on Sunday night.
The world No.1 has now won the last three Grand Slam titles in succession, surpassing the trophy hauls of both Emerson and his idol Pete Sampras with his 15th major in the process. But more than the numbers, it was the manner of this victory – equal parts stellar and statement – that underscored his hegemony here at Rod Laver Arena.
At times Nadal was completely thrown off his game by the world No.1, stumbling out of the blocks amid a raft of errors in the opening set, left second-guessing as the rallies grew longer in the second, and beaten by a string of drop shots as the Serb broke early in the third before sprinting to the finish after weathering a late rally from the Spaniard.
No shot typified Nadal’s troubles more than the forehand, which accounted for 15 of his 28 errors having been the bedrock of his run to the final. In contrast, Djokovic was virtually flawless, making just nine errors in total and firing 34 winners to Nadal’s 21.
“I have to contemplate the journey of the last 12 months, because just as Rafa has been through a surgery, I’ve had an injury myself the last couple of years,” said Djokovic, who had an operation on his bothersome elbow shortly after his fourth-round loss here in 2018.
“I had the surgery exactly 12 months ago. And to be standing now here, in front of you today, having won this title and three of the four Slams, is truly amazing.
“Marian (Vajda), thank you for coming back to my team,” he added, paying tribute to the coaching team whose return at the midpoint of the 2018 season sparked his runs to the Wimbledon and US Open titles and the world No.1. Then, he turned his thoughts to wife Jelena and children Stefan and Tara back in Europe.
“I hope they’ve been watching – at least before the match they said they’d watch,” he joked. “Trophies are even more special when I have someone so dear, so special in my life to share this with. They are my dearest people on this planet next to my two brothers and my parents.”
Having played the longest final in Open era history here in their only previous meeting, tussling for nearly six hours back in 2012, Djokovic cruised to victory in just two hours and four minutes on Sunday night.
The top seed burst out to a 3-0 lead inside 10 minutes as Nadal, wearing an anxious expression and misfiring his forehand time and again, lost 13 of the first 14 points. Given his own rapid-fire starts at Melbourne Park, having dropped just six games in his last four opening sets, it was a shock to see him made to look so sluggish.
But that is Djokovic’s brilliance, his capacity to neutralise and then attack weapons that devastate virtually every other opponent. As Nadal battled to dial in the forehand, the world No.1 went after it, skidding flat crosscourt backhands into – and sometimes past – the Spaniard’s fearsome wing.
Nadal got on the board in the fourth game and was stung into action at 1-4 when a dead let cord seemed set to leave him no chance. But he hared forward, scooped the ball up, and scampered after Djokovic’s lob volley to spin and fire an unplayable backhand. Signs of life from the Spaniard amid the nerves, which perhaps played their part in an air-shot on a regulation forehand in the next game.
Djokovic eased to the opener but met sterner resistance early in the second, as the match reverted to the patterns of old. Nadal had reached this final behind a one-two punch policy: big serving, bigger forehand. But with Plan A letting him down, he started engaging the Serb in longer rallies.
For a time it worked, until a bullet return from Djokovic at 2-2 drew the error and left Nadal at 15-30. In the next point he was alive to a drop shot but clipped the net with the reply, scrambling to get a racquet to the Serb’s pass only to send the ball long.
The break followed, as did a second as Djokovic moved two sets clear before breaking for a 2-1 lead in the third. And then, just as soon as the match seemed a foregone conclusion, the Serb netted a forehand to gift Nadal his first break point of the match at 3-2.
The chance came as quickly as it went, Nadal netting a backhand before Djokovic nailed a short forehand into the corner and following up with a winner off the same wing for 4-2. Further pressure followed at 4-3 when Nadal dragged him from corner to corner and drew a forehand error on the run to reach deuce, only for the net cord to play against him once more as Djokovic’s volley on game point fell dead for a winner.
Luck played no part in the final game, however, as Djokovic hit with devastating purity, crushing three forehands to reach match point on the Nadal serve. One passed with a backhand winner from the Spaniard, but on the second Nadal fired wide to bring his heaviest Grand Slam final defeat to an end.
“Congratulations to Novak and all his team – it was an amazing level of tennis tonight,” said the Spaniard, having failed to take a set in a major final for the first time.
“Sometimes this tournament has been tough on me in terms of injuries, and other times in terms of opponents, like tonight.
“It’s been a very emotional few days. Even if tonight wasn’t my best day, of course, I played somebody that played much better than me tonight, it’s been a very positive two weeks for me.
“Even if tonight was not my night, for me it’s so important to be where I am again, coming back from injury. I really believe that I played a great two weeks of tennis, and that’s going to be a good energy, good inspiration for what coming.”