James Lawton: Nadal fought well but Serb can become best ever


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The Independent Online

In Spain they talk about mano a mano, hand to hand, a fight of ultimate intensity by two great performers to prove which one is the better, but usually they are referring to the valour and the skill of bullfighters – not tennis players.

This, though, is not likely to be true for quite some time after the extraordinary battle between native son Rafael Nadal and Serbia's Novak Djokovic for the Australian Open title yesterday.

Another phrase of the bull ring is momento de verdad – moment of truth – and again it rang perfectly true in the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. This, after all, was a contest which carried us some way beyond the normal margins of sport and, when Djokovic finally won, deep into the sixth hour of the longest Grand Slam final ever played, nobody, least of all the beaten Nadal, needed telling what the moment meant. For Nadal, it brought the terrible possibility that he may never again beat Djokovic, a winner now the last seven times they have met, all of them in finals.

For Djokovic, who kissed the large cross that dangled from his neck around about the time he slid to 4-2 down in the fifth set, it was still more evidence that he is not only the greatest player of his day but potentially of all time.

Yes, of course he has a long way to go to catch Roger Federer on his mark of 16 major titles – and even Nadal with his 10 – but at 24 he has come not merely to dominate tennis but almost to devour it.

This was his third straight Grand Slam – an achievement shared with only three others since the great Laver did it in 1969, and their names perfectly underpin Djokovic's status – Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal. Along with his fifth major, the man from Belgrade also earned the key to the tennis pantheon.

He doesn't make shots so much as produce a series of breathtaking acts of will. He plays beyond both mood – some of his behaviour can be fierce, as we saw at Wimbledon last season when he systematically smashed his racket on the baseline after a series of poor shots – and fatigue.

Nadal had an extra day's rest after beating Federer in his semi-final and Djokovic was required to go nearly five hours against Andy Murray.

Toward the end of yesterday's marathon, it seemed that he might just be in the process of crumbling. On one occasion in the decisive set, he sprawled on the court after losing a point, then made three desultory attempts to retrieve his racket.

Nadal, like a weary fighter with the sudden surge of hope that comes when he senses his opponent is closer to breakdown, had some reason to believe his long torment was over. However, the way Djokovic separated him from this illusion was, in the end, verging on the sadistic. It was also sublime.

Maybe, also, it separated some of us from the conviction that we had seen the greatest tennis match, the most sustained evidence of superior will and endless resource, on Wimbledon's Centre Court in 2008. That also involved Nadal, and when he beat Federer on that stupendous occasion it was very hard not to believe that one great player had arrived and another had looked into the future and seen at the very least the beginning of the end of his best days.

That conviction had to be even stronger in the small hours of an Australian morning. Nobody could have played with more passion or competitive character than Rafa Nadal but the final verdict had to be unequivocal. It was that Djokovic was not only the man of a glorious moment but of some considerable years to come.