It rained confetti at the trophy presentation for the 100th Australian Open. Rafael Nadal stood next to Novak Djokovic. He faced floodlights of despair, looking lost but still holding on gracefully. Underneath his grace was the look of a stranger in a strange land.
The Rod Laver Arena is no longer the paradise it was for Nadal in 2009. Djokovic lives there now. He won his third Australian Open, beating Rafael Nadal in five sets (5-7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7, 7–5.) The more defeats Nadal suffers at his hands, the further he walks from this paradise.
It's been a long time since Nadal could shrug off doubts about his ability to maintain a style of play that weakened his knees and forced him to take time off from the tennis circuit.
Nadal has long been tennis's most vivid and irresistible metaphor for power, force, aggression, and machismo. But losses to Djokovic—seven in a row and 10 in their last 13 contests—steadily undermined his confidence and brought about a frenetic reflectiveness his team was unaccustomed to.
Physical fitness vs. mental
An endless stream of articles hit the internet when Djokovic took his shirt off and roared his heart out to celebrate his victory. A majority of them focused on the physicality of the match, the intensity of the rallies and how Djokovic fell flat on his back after a 31-shot rally in the fifth set.
Was the match decided by fitness alone? If so, Nadal should have won hands down.
Djokovic had just one day off after his marathon semifinal against Andy Murray. He appeared exhausted as the final dragged on.
On the contrary, Nadal had an extra day off and looked rejuvenated after his win over Roger Federer. That victory may have meant more to him mentally. Federer beat him in straight sets in their previous match.
Nadal strutted in the final set again Djokovic as if the five-hour tug-of-war didn't mean a thing to him.
Nadal had fought hard. He was quick, deadly and menacing. His midair celebrations and clenched fist could have unnerved any other opponent.
Whenever he finds himself down, Nadal waits for a toehold to worm his way back into the contest. He got one in the fourth set when Djokovic failed to convert on a string of breakpoints.
This pepped Nadal up. Down 2-1, he fought back even though the second and the third sets had been one-sided. He found his rhythm. His serve got sharper. He attacked Djokovic's forehand.
Momentum followed Nadal into the deciding set, like a dog following his master. Djokovic's belaboured body language suggested he was having a mental meltdown. Nadal broke the Serb and went up 4-2. All he needed to do was hold his serve for a 5-2 lead.
Self-belief, a weapon Nadal didn't have…
But Djokovic's self-belief broke through once again. He refused to be intimidated by long rallies—Nadal's bread and butter. Djokovic outhit his opponent. He went for winners only when he was sure he had constructed the point well.
Djokovic is no stranger to Nadal's love of condemning his opponents to relentless rallies. He's beaten Nadal with his singular ability to hit punishing returns during those rallies and a far superior serve and backhand.
As long as Djokovic can maintain these elements of play--returns, serves, and backhands--he doesn't mind losing a few points or a break here and there. He plays on without losing confidence.
One thing is sure: Djokovic looked drained when he was broken in the decider, but not beaten.
Moments like that test the character of one's mental strength. You live from shot to shot, moment to moment. The game has built you to react that way. If you fail to catch up to the tension and find a way turn it into your favour, a fighter like Nadal will tame you into submission in no time.
Djokovic knew this and it helped him subdue the last robust burst of energy from Nadal and slam the door shut.
He is now living the moment, savoring it, elevated by it.
All's not lost for Nadal
The ghost of Djokovic has likely pitched a tent in every crevice of Nadal's mind. He can't let it sulk there for long or else the same turmoil will unfold each time he faces his resourceful adversary.
There is hopelessness, but there is also, just as irrefutably, succour. In this defeat, Nadal came closer to winning than he had in recent memory by using every trick in his kit.
Djokovic knew his weak points had been exposed when Nadal began refusing to play to his backhand and denied him down-the-line winners in the second half of the fourth set.
In the future, Djokovic's team will know how to devise counterpunches and help him keep riding the wave.
That's why this rivalry will get more engrossing than ever before.
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