Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the men's singles winner's trophy at a media call in Melbourne January 30, 2012. Djokovic claimed his third Australian Open men's singles crown when he defeated Rafael Nadal of Spain. (Photo: REUTERS)
The Serbian world number one was the last man standing in Melbourne after two ferocious battles spanning more than 10 hours against Andy Murray in the semis and then Rafa Nadal in the final. He now towers like a chunk of granite at the top of the men’s game.
Having risen through the ranks in an era when Roger Federer and Nadal shredded the record books the 24-year-old now looks capable of achieving the feat that eluded both of them, and many more of the game’s greats, the fabled calendar grand slam.
Djokovic won three of the four majors last year, only tripping up in the semi-finals of the French Open to an inspired Federer who himself collected three pieces of the jigsaw in 2004, 2006 and 2007—each time Nadal proving an insurmountable barrier on Parisian brick dust.
Nadal won the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open during his dominant 2010, since when Djokovic has taken over.
While Federer has never mastered Nadal’s topspin brutality at Roland Garros—his only triumph coming there when Nadal was injured in 2009—and Nadal often suffered on the hard courts of Melbourne and Flushing Meadows, Djokovic’s game is tailor-made for any surface.
His rubber-limbed movement means any ball appears within his reach, his serve is now a major weapon and his ability to generate pace off either wing by stepping inside the baseline means virtually all his matches are played on his terms.
Even when Murray launched a staggering onslaught in Friday’s semi-final, Djokovic weathered the storm behind his steely defences.
He proved last year that he had Nadal’s number on slow clay, de-throning the Mallorcan powerhouse in Madrid and Rome without dropping a set—defeats that eroded Nadal’s aura of invincibilty on a surface he has ruled on since 2005.
While talk of a calendar grand slam, a feat not achieved since Rod Laver in 1969, is loaded with pitfalls, Djokovic was doing nothing to play down the possibility after his five hour 53 minute victory against Nadal on Sunday.
“I’m prioritising grand slams this year, as every year, and the Olympic Games. I think that’s one of my highest goals,” Djokovic said after becoming just the fifth player to win three of them in succession.
“That doesn’t mean of course that I’m not gonna prepare well and perform my best on the other tournaments. It’s just that, you know, the grand slams matter the most.”
Clay has proved the most problematic for former greats such as Federer, Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors but Djokovic has no demons on the surface and he clearly believes the French Open is winnable for the first time this year.
“I want to do well and I want to get the first final at least in Paris, you know,” he said.
“I have never been in finals there, and I have a feeling that I’m ready this year to achieve that.”
Despite Nadal’s upbeat reaction to defeat by Djokovic, a seventh consecutive defeat to the relentless Serb will have left mental and physical scars—similar to the ones he seems to regularly inflict on Federer.
While Sunday’s epic was desperately close and Nadal should arguably have won the fifth set against an exhausted opponent, there were long periods of the match when Djokovic called the shots and only Nadal’s tenacity kept him in contention.
The good news for Rafa fans is that he is up for the fight and appeared energised by the prospect of trying to stop the Djokovic juggernaut despite acknowledging that the Serb has taken the game to new heights.
“Now he’s the best of the world,” Nadal said after losing the longest grand slam final ever.
“That’s how great it is. Five grand slams, so the history says that he has a part in the history today winning five grand slams, winning a lot of titles, number one of the world.”
“We’ll see where he arrives,” added the 25-year-old.
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