Defending champion Novak Djokovic battled past Rafael Nadal in an epic, five-set Australian Open final which clocked in at 5hr 53min — the longest title match in grand slam history — early Monday.
Djokovic fought back from losing the first set to take a 2-1 lead, but he was then taken to a gripping fifth set by resurgent Nadal before winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5/7), 7-5 for his third consecutive major title.
The nail-biting match of wildly swinging fortunes, played in front of an enthralled crowd, started before 8:00 pm on Sunday and did not wind up until 1:40 am on Monday, and was also the longest in the tournament’s history.
“Good morning everybody,” Nadal told the crowd afterwards. “I will never forget this match. Even though I lost, it was something really special for me. Thank you very much, I will come back here a lot and I will keep fighting.”
Djokovic, who picks up a cheque for Aus$2.3 million (US$2.4 million), has now beaten the Spaniard in three consecutive grand slam finals and seven consecutive title matches overall.
“Rafa, you’re one of the best players ever. You’re one of the most respected guys on the tour,” he said.
“We made history tonight, and unfortunately there couldn’t be two winners. But I wish you all the best for this season and I hope that we will have many more matches like this and many more finals.”
Djokovic’s win, his fifth grand slam title, means he joins rarified company. Only Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer (twice) and Nadal have previously won three consecutive grand slams in the open era.
The Serb, who had a gruelling five-set semi-final win over Andy Murray, came into the final with a day less rest than Nadal, and having complained about allergy-related breathing problems in Melbourne.
He struggled to get into the match early on against his never-say-die opponent, slamming racquet to the ground when he was broken and falling a set behind but, re-energised, he found his rhythm in the second set to level.
Starting to dictate, the defending champion ran away with the third set, overpowering Nadal and breaking him to love to win it 6-2.
But the 25-year-old from Majorca, deposed from the top ranking by Djokovic after his losing last year’s Wimbledon final, refused to be beaten and dragged himself back into the contest through sheer force of will.
The Spanish left-hander saved three break points in the eighth game of the fourth set, producing a fist-pumping celebration when he levelled at 4-4.
But in a surreal addition to the mounting tension, action was suspended for rain to organisers could close the stadium roof and dry the court.
When play restarted the set went to a tie-break, with Nadal clinching it at his first opportunity on a Djokovic forehand error to set up the decider.
And in the dramatic fifth set Nadal secured a crucial break in the sixth game, but with the Spaniard now suddenly looking the more likely winner, Djokovic battled back to secure a break of his own.
With players refusing to give an inch, the Serbian top seed broke again in the 11th game when Nadal netted with a backhand and then, in almost unbearable tension, saved a break point as he served out for the championship.
The Serb ripped off his shirt in celebration and marched to his players’ box, flexing his muscles and then hugging his coach as he claimed his third Australian Open title, after 2008 and 2011.
The match was longer than the 1988 US Open final between Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, which lasted 4hr 54min, and also beat the Australian Open record of 5hr 14min set by Nadal and Fernando Verdasco in 2009.