According to the programs distributed to the fans at Melbourne Park, Sunday night marked the 100th men's final of the Australian Open. But what followed was less a tennis match than a ground war, cage fight and Ironman event rolled into one. For five hours and 53 minutes, well into Monday morning, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played a game of Can-you-top-this? that would have been preposterous had it not been so heroic.
The two top-ranked players competed as if every point carried a price in blood. Each asked and re-asked questions of the other, the answers ever more forceful and eloquent. They explored the borders of their physical limits. This was product placement for endurance, strength, power, accuracy and will, a six-hour infomercial selling the notion that tennis players—yes, tennis players—might be the finest athletes on the planet.
Giving the occasion still more weight was the context. Over the past year Djokovic has knocked Nadal from his perch atop the ATP rankings, beating him in all six of their meetings in 2011. He did what was previously thought impossible: He bent Rafa's spirit to the breaking point. What did you do on your winter vacation? Nadal spent most of his devoted to the singular task of, as he puts it, "finding the Novak Solution." That meant working on his court positioning, shoring up a backhand that Djokovic had picked apart, assessing tactics and even tinkering with the weight of his racket to reclaim the status that had been his.
As for Djokovic, he came to Melbourne fresh off one of the most comprehensively dominating years in men's tennis, a 70--6 campaign that encompassed three major titles. "I know I have a bull's-eye," he said. "I am the man to beat." And he nearly was beaten in the semifinals, pushed to five sets by Andy Murray. Now he was supposed to recuperate within 48 hours and defend his title against the extraordinarily fit Nadal?
The final, though, ultimately wasn't about Nadal's X's and O's or Djokovic's arms and legs as much as it was about their combined guts and heart. The players swapped the first two sets, Nadal relying on his side-winding lefty forehand, the Serb on his superior return of serve. They split the next two sets as well, each making improbable plays and imposing their physicality as momentum swayed from one side of the net to the other almost as rapidly as the shots. Both players found reserves of energy, depleted them and tapped into new ones. "I felt my body started to slow down," said Djokovic, "but on the other hand I was aware of the fact that he's not feeling that great and fresh [either]."
Finally, at 5--5 in the fifth set, Djokovic marshaled his courage and made a last surge, breaking Nadal's serve. A few minutes later it was 1:37 a.m.—not an empty seat among the arena's 14,820—when Djokovic smote a reverse crosscourt forehand to win the 369th and final point of the longest Grand Slam final ever played. Game. Set. Matchless: 5--7, 6--4, 6--2, 6--7, 7--5. "We live for these matches," says Djokovic. "We're trying to dedicate all our lives to this sport to come to the situation where we play a six-hour match for a Grand Slam title."
Let the debate rage over whether this affair eclipsed the 2008 Wimbledon final between Nadal and Roger Federer as the Greatest Match Ever Played. For now say this: Sunday's titanic final wasn't just the culmination of a sensational tournament; it stands for now as the signature match for the current gilded age of men's tennis. The Occupy Wall Street movement may have found sympathy throughout the globe, spawning spin-off groups and demonstrations from Auckland to Zurich. But its message of distributing wealth more equitably doesn't echo in this sport.
With about 400 full-time ATP touring pros, the sport's One-Percenters comprise, by order of ranking, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray. Far from begrudging the elite their success, the Republic of Tennis accepts and admires the heavy concentration of riches. The other players, the 99%, accept their station in life and mount little resistance. As fifth-ranked David Ferrer of Spain said last week with a shrug, "The top [four] are at a better level, just too good."
The NFL can have its Any Given Sunday. Baseball can delude itself into thinking that small-market teams have a chance to compete. But in individual sports, dominant, predictable champions are preferable to parity. Consider: Over the last 28 Grand Slam events—a span of seven years—all but one have been claimed by Djokovic, Nadal or Federer. One of those three has held the No. 1 ranking for eight uninterrupted years, and the top four have won a wildly disproportionate amount of prize money (more than $81 million combined). Of the last 28 Grand Slam semifinal berths, 24 were claimed by Fedalmurovic. "We've never seen anything like this," says Mats Wilander, the 47-year-old seven-time Grand Slam champion who now works as a commentator. "It's almost like there are two tours, the main one and the one with the top four guys. And it's great."
The supremacy of the Fab Four was on vivid display Down Under. Each man reached the semifinals (see also: sunrise, east), where they played dazzling matches that showcased both the talent and psychodynamics of the One-Percenters. Triggered by a disagreement over ATP politics and policies, a chill has settled over the Federer-Nadal rivalry. When the two played last Thursday for the 27th time, there was no overt hostility but no pleasantries either. Nadal's pugnacious style again trumped Federer's elegance, and the Spaniard won 6--7, 6--2, 7--6, 6--4, pushing his head-to-head record to 18--9 and reigniting the discussion: How can Federer be considered the Greatest Ever when he fares so dismally against his chief rival? (Answer: That is, unquestionably, a mark against Federer, but it's small potatoes next to the mountain of evidence in his favor.)