This has been called a golden era for tennis, but it is a golden era encrusted with diamonds and lined with platinum. Novak Djokovic won his third successive Grand Slam title here last night when he beat Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 after one of the most sensational finals in Grand Slam history.
An age that has produced two of the greatest players of all time in Nadal and Roger Federer, with Djokovic now hot on their heels, has also featured some of the most memorable matches ever played – and this was up with the best of them. Nadal's 2008 victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon gloom has been labelled the finest match played, but that verdict might need to be revised after this epic.
At five hours and 53 minutes the match beat the record for a Grand Slam final by nearly an hour, while the 1.37am finish was the latest ever. However, bare statistics could not do justice to the drama or the magnificence of the tennis in the latter stages. Their US Open final four months ago featured tennis of more sustained brilliance, but did not match this as a piece of theatre.
Djokovic twice went to the brink of victory in the fourth set, but Nadal responded with iron-willed resilience to force a decider. In the final set it was Nadal who appeared on course to end his run of six successive losses to Djokovic in finals, only for the Serb to dip into his apparently bottomless well of willpower to claim his fifth Grand Slam title.
The previous longest Grand Slam final was at the 1988 US Open, when Mats Wilander beat Ivan Lendl after four hours and 54 minutes. This was also the longest match ever played at the Australian Open, beating the five hours and 14 minutes that Nadal needed to beat Fernando Verdasco in the semi-finals three years ago.
On the latter occasion, Nadal's effort in recovering to beat Federer two days later in a final that lasted four hours and 19 minutes was hailed as a super-human effort. But Djokovic surpassed even that, having been kept on court by Andy Murray for four hours and 50 minutes on Friday night.
It was Djokovic's third Australian Open, his third successive victory over Nadal in a Grand Slam final and his fourth triumph in the last five Grand Slams. If he wins the next, at the French Open, the 24-year-old Serb will be the first man to hold all four majors since Rod Laver won the pure Grand Slam – all four in the calendar year – in 1969. Serena Williams held all four in 2003 in what became known as the Serena Slam. In the coming weeks there will be plenty of talk about Djokovic chasing a possible 'Novak Slam' in Paris.
The match began in stifling heat inside Rod Laver Arena. It might have been expected to sap the players' energy, but both are formidable athletes for whom no physical challenge seems too great.
It was thought the sultry conditions might favour Nadal, but Djokovic is a far more durable player than he used to be. The Serb did not look comfortable in a scrappy 80-minute first set, but that was because he was struggling to find his timing. Djokovic recovered an early break, but at 5-5 he was broken again, after which Nadal served out for the first set.
However, there had already been signs that the Djokovic bandwagon was rolling and the pattern quickly changed in the second set. The world No 1 found a better rhythm on his serve and also began to read Nadal's. The Spaniard's second serve, in particular, was routinely punished as Djokovic thumped some huge returns. Nadal saved a set point when he served at 2-5 and followed that with a break of serve, only for Djokovic to respond in kind to level the match.
After two hours and 27 minutes, only two sets had been played. In comparison, the third was over in the blink of an eye. Djokovic won it in just 45 minutes, breaking serve twice.
From the fourth set onwards, both men found their best tennis at the same time. The crowd had been on Nadal's side from the start and as he turned up the heat so the spectators turned up the volume. When Nadal served at 3-4 and 0-40 the end seemed close, but the world No 2 won five superb points in a row to level at 4-4. With rain falling, the match was held up for 10 minutes as the roof was closed, but there was no let-up in the intensity when they resumed. Djokovic again went to the brink of victory in the tie-break, when he had a glorious chance to hit a forehand winner when leading 5-4 but put the ball in the net. Two points later Nadal was on his knees in celebration at levelling the match as Djokovic missed another forehand. It was the first time in their 30 meetings – of which Nadal has won 16 – that they had gone into a fifth set.
Nadal, hitting the ball harder than at any stage, broke to lead 4-2 in the decider. Leading 30-15 on his own serve in the next game, he had the court at his mercy but put a backhand wide. It was a miss that may haunt him as Djokovic broke back by forcing him to miss two forehands in succession.
The first point of the next game saw Nadal win an extraordinary 32-shot rally, after which an exhausted Djokovic, gasping for air, fell on his back. When he lost the next point, the Serb dropped his racket to the floor and needed several attempts to pick it up. If it was a rope-a-dope tactic, Nadal was having none of it, refusing even to look at his opponent, but two games later Djokovic made the final break as the Spaniard netted a backhand.
Djokovic, who had never won back-to-back five-set matches before, saved one break point in the final game with a classic attacking backhand, after which he crossed himself and appeared to mutter prayers of thanks. On his first match point, the Serb hit a forehand winner before sinking to the floor in celebration. Having embraced Nadal, he ripped off his shirt and let out a mighty roar.
The two men were utterly exhausted. During the post-match speeches a sympathetic official found chairs into which the two men gratefully slumped.
Nadal playfully began his own speech with the words: "Good morning, everybody." Djokovic, who struggled to hold the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup presented to him by Laver, hailed his opponent as "one of the best players ever, one of the most respected players on tour". The Serb left with a cheque for Aus$2.3m (£1.56m), the largest prize in the history of tennis and one which has surely never been as hard earned.
Australian Open 2008, 2011, 2012
US Open 2011
Yesterday's showdown took five hours and 53 minutes – the longest ever Grand Slam final.
Djokovic has beaten Nadal in their last seven meetings – all of them finals.
The Monday morning finish was the latest ever finish to a Grand Slam final.