Is the brutal style of the Djokovic-Nadal match here to stay?
After I failed to allot enough time on my DVR to record the entirety of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic's five-set semifinal match at the Australian Open on Thursday evening (Friday, Australian time), I was determined not to make the same mistake with the men's final between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. ESPN2's overnight coverage was scheduled for three and a half hours, and I extended this by another three—the maximum possible on my system for one program. Six and a half hours should do it, I thought, even assuming the match wouldn't start until a half hour or so into the broadcast.
Silly me. I woke up Sunday morning and watched the match through to the agonizing fifth set, when, after an exchange of breaks, Djokovic finally managed to take the lead, 6-5, with a chance to serve for the title. Then my recording cut off, one game short, it turned out, of the denouement--yet another Djokovic victory against Nadal in a championship match, and the third consecutive in a Grand Slam final.
The two men played for five hours and fifty-three minutes, a record length of time for a Grand Slam final. But considering that in 2009 they played a three-set match on clay that lasted four hours, it's hard to be shocked that once they finally did play a five-setter, it would approximate the length of a trans-Atlantic flight. On Sunday, the first set took an hour and 20 minutes, on pace for a nearly seven-hour encounter. Given their eleven-hour match at Wimbledon in 2010, John Isner and Nicholas Mahut may not have been particularly impressed, but at least they had the luxury of playing on grass, which is easier on the players' bodies. Nadal and Djokovic, playing a grueling series of matches in the last couple of years on hard courts, have likely shortened each other's careers.
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Still, a note of skepticism may be in order: Though yesterday's final will deserve its place as a historic match of two players in their prime, it's not because of the sheer time it takes them to play. Both Nadal and Djokovic are notoriously slow players —between points, that is. Both men often take longer than the allotted 30 seconds between points, a habit that has often irked Roger Federer, who likes to play quickly and smother his opponents rather than engage in a prolonged dogfight where endurance and mental stamina become paramount. Of course, what Andy Murray called the "brutal" nature of some of today's tennis rallies means that the 30-second rule should not be enforced too literally at the wrong moment, especially in a final. It's hard to imagine umpire Pascal Maria penalizing Djokovic when, after losing a 31-shot rally in the fifth set, he fell to the ground and began huffing and puffing like a drowning man.