MELBOURNE, Australia — Shirtless in Rod Laver Arena at 1:38 this morning Melbourne time, Novak Djokovic screamed with release and delight in the direction of his supporters. And who could begrudge him the celebration?
It had required five sets and the longest Grand Slam men's singles final in history, but Djokovic finally managed to win his third straight major singles title on a Sunday night local time that turned into a Monday morning. He did it by defeating an equally determined but ultimately frustrated opponent, Rafael Nadal, in an Australian Open final that will rank as one of the greatest matches in the long history of tennis.
Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, required a record 5 hours and 53 minutes to defeat the second-seeded Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 7-5.
"It was obvious for everybody who watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies," Djokovic said. "It was maybe luck in some moments and a matter of wanting this more than maybe the other player in the certain point. It's just an incredible effort."
Numbers — and there were plenty of them — do not sum up the depth and emotional power of this marathon, the latest joint effort in a golden era in the men's game that has repeatedly matched strength against strength.
For now, there can be no doubt that Djokovic, a bristle-haired 24-year-old from Serbia, is the strongest. In the past seven months he and Nadal have played for the trophy at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and now the Australian Open. Djokovic has won every final and has beaten Nadal, a 25-year-old Spaniard who is one of the supreme competitors in the sport's history, seven times in a row.
"I didn't have mental problems (Sunday) against him," said Nadal, winner of 10 majors. "I had in 2011 all these mental problems. (Sunday) I didn't have. I compete with normal conditions against him, no?
"I lost a match, but it was perhaps the final that I lost that hurts the least because I did all I could. I fought with everything I had."
It was the third Australian Open title and the fifth Grand Slam singles title for Djokovic, and he has won four of the past five major tournaments. In last year's French Open, he lost in the semifinals to Roger Federer.
But since taking the reins of the men's game last year, Djokovic has never been pushed quite like this. After an edgy first set, Djokovic gradually found his intimidating range. But the winner never seemed clear until his final shot, an inside-out forehand, bounced twice for a winner.
The turning point came when Nadal went for a bit too much on a backhand after more than five hours on the court.
At 30-15 in the seventh game of the fifth set, Djokovic was almost exhausted and didn't even try to continue the point when Nadal lined up a backhand with the court wide open. Nadal skewed it slightly wide down the line.
Nobody could quite believe it. Nadal challenged the out call but really only to regroup his thoughts. Instead of moving ahead 40-15, one point from a 5-2 lead in the fifth set, the score became 30-30. Djokovic won the next two points and regained the momentum.
"It's true I had big mistake with 30-15," Nadal said. "But it's not (a) moment to think about that. That's just another moment in an almost six-hours match. Forget about that knowing that I really had real, very real chances to have the title."
When asked whether it was the greatest win of his career, Djokovic said, "I think (it) comes out on the top because just the fact that we played almost six hours is incredible. I'm very proud just to be part of this history.
"The longest finals in the history of all Grand Slams … just to hear that fact is making me cry, really."