MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic wore down Rafael Nadal in the longest Grand Slam singles final ever, winning, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (7-5), 7-5, after 5 hours 53 minutes to claim his third Australian Open title.
Djokovic wrapped it up at 1:37 a.m. local time on Monday, becoming the fifth man since the Open Era began in 1968 to win three straight Grand Slam finals.
Minutes earlier, at 4-4 in an electrifying fifth set, an exhausted Djokovic collapsed with his arms and legs spread wide after losing a 31-shot rally — the longest of the match. He seemed barely able to pick himself and his racket up, but he somehow lifted himself for one last effort, beating Nadal for the seventh time in a final since March.
The 24-year-old Djokovic tore off his shirt in celebration.
As the players waited for the trophy presentation, Nadal leaned on the net, while Djokovic sat on his haunches. Eventually, a nearby official brought them chairs and water.
“We made history tonight and unfortunately there couldn’t be two winners,” said Djokovic, the winner of five Grand Slam titles and four of the last five majors.
Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Rod Laver are the only players to win three consecutive Grand Slam finals since 1968.
Nadal became the first man in the Open Era to lose three straight major finals. He was beaten in four sets by Djokovic at last year’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
“I think we played a great tennis match. I enjoyed being part of this event and this match,” Nadal said. “I am not happy to lose the final, yes, but that’s one of the losses that I am more happy [about] in my career.”
Having reduced Roger Federer to tears when he won the title over five sets in 2009, Nadal managed to maintain his composure during the on-court speeches — and even managed a joke.
“Good morning, everybody,” Nadal said, earning laughs and loud applause from the crowd. “Congratulations to Novak and his team. They deserve it. They are doing something fantastic, so congratulations.”
The previous longest major singles final was Mats Wilander’s win over Ivan Lendl at the U.S. Open in 1988, which lasted 4 hours 54 minutes.
The longest Australian Open final also involved Wilander in 1988, when the Swede beat Pat Cash. Sunday’s match was also the longest in the tournament’s history.
A tense, error-strewn opening set offered no indication of the high drama to follow. In hot, humid conditions, Nadal, trying to step up to the baseline to take the initiative, took it after 80 minutes — two minutes short of the entire women’s final the previous day.
Nadal had only lost one match of his previous 134 in Grand Slams after winning the first set, but he found his serve coming under increasing pressure as the match wore on.
As if to demonstrate the pervading tension of the occasion, Djokovic double-faulted at break point down while serving for the second set at 5-3 before Nadal returned the favor by double-faulting in the next game to give the Serb the second set.
By the time Djokovic took a 3-1 lead in the third set, Nadal’s shoulders were visibly slumping and he was talking to himself more often, unable to stop his opponent peppering the baseline with his returns to take control of the points.
At 5-2, his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, moved to the front row of the players’ box to try to get some positive messages to his nephew. It didn’t work. Nadal lost his serve again — at love.
But in the fourth set, Nadal dug in, drawing on his renowned fighting spirit, and the match really came alive when he recovered from 0-40 down in the eighth game with two spectacular winners, two unreturnable serves and an ace.
The crowd erupted into a chant of “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa.” Then came a rain shower and a brief delay for the roof to close, providing a much-needed breather for the finalists.
Nadal regained his momentum in the tiebreaker, reeling off four straight points from 5-3 down and taking the match into a decider when Djokovic’s forehand dropped wide.
The tennis, almost unbelievably, improved in the fifth set as the match ticked past five hours.
Nadal went up a break at 4-2 and Djokovic seemed to finally be feeling the effects of his nearly five-hour semifinal against Andy Murray on Friday.
But the top-ranked Djokovic responded immediately, finding another brutal return on break point in the next game to force the error from Nadal.
Nadal saved a break point at 4-4 and another at 5-5. Djokovic then came through again. On a second break point, he forced Nadal to net a backhand, giving him a chance to serve out the match.
Still, Nadal wasn’t quite done. Djokovic had to save a break point with a cross-court backhand, looking to the sky and crossing himself as he limped back to the baseline, before finally claiming victory with his 57th winner of the match.
— Associated Press