Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are back in an Australian Open men’s final, seven years after their first meeting in an Australian Open final. If ever there was a time to discuss the magnitude and the meaning of their 2012 match in Melbourne, this is as good as it gets.
The 2012 Australian Open men’s final will retain a prominent place in the history of this Golden Era of men’s professional tennis. On that point, there should be no doubt. The important question to ask about that match: Should it be celebrated or viewed as a cautionary tale… or both… or neither?
We risk going into Bill Clinton territory here: It depends on what the meaning of “celebrating” is.
One cannot assess Rafael Nadal’s career in full without acknowledging in some way and to some degree his enormous yet still limited capacity to absorb pain and physical strain. Nadal has always walked the tightrope between effort and injury, between playing style and the price of a mid-tournament retirement. The Australian Open and the ATP Finals are the two events where this price has been paid more than anywhere else for Nadal in his extraordinary career. The prevalence of hardcourts in pro tennis — something which did not exist as a tour-wide reality 35 years ago, and did not exist at the four majors dating back to 1987 on a substantial level and 1977 at a complete level — has played a part in punishing Nadal’s knees.
Imagine how different the course of tennis history would be — and have been — if we lived in a 1977 world at the majors. Two major tournaments were played on clay that year, and two were on grass. Go back three years to 1974. Three of the four majors were on grass, with Roland Garros being on clay. Imagine what Nadal could have done under those circumstances. Rafa is an extraordinary player in any circumstance on any surface, but if anyone has been specifically hurt — literally and figuratively — by the superabundance of hardcourt tennis on tour in modern times, it’s him.
(No, Roger Federer hasn’t been hurt by the superabundance of hardcourt tennis, in case you are wondering — that dynamic doesn’t apply to him. Where Federer has been specifically hurt is the LACK of grass-court representation at the major-tournament and Masters 1000 levels.)
Novak Djokovic certainly hasn’t been hurt by the large quantity of hardcourt tennis on offer in this decade. Djokovic — with his adjusted diet and his religious devotion to maximizing a bendy, flexible body — has been able to profoundly and successfully absorb the strain hardcourt tennis places on the human figure. The enormous amount of work Djokovic has devoted to his sport is exactly what has enabled him to look at the Fedal axis of power and — over the past decade — surpass it. Tolerance for work, for struggle, for pulling off an athletic equivalent of walking through fire, has given Djokovic the refined steel of a supreme champion.
A total willingness to go through pain and difficulty, if that’s what it takes to be No. 1, marks both Nadal and Djokovic. The stories of their careers are embodied in and through so many different championship qualities — they are not one-trick ponies or one-track thinkers — but that tolerance of the struggle, absorbing the wear and tear of modern tennis against each other, is certainly a significant part of their journeys.
That 2012 Australian Open final epitomized their readiness — and willingness — to empty themselves on court.
As Rafa and Novak prepare for this 2019 final in Rod Laver Arena, seven years after their 5:53 marathon, there is a general awareness that neither player would be well-served by another textbook demonstration of antler-knocking gladiatorial combat. Nadal will be 33 in four and a half months, while Djokovic will be 32 in four months. They have both gone through injury-related problems recently enough to know and understand that if they want to play elite-level tennis four years from now, they have to approach their sport differently.
This obviously doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t play a long match — would anyone be surprised if they played a 4:30 final on Sunday? — but it does mean that the extended rallies they were quite content to play in 2012 (and also in their similarly brutal 2011 U.S. Open final, which was for me a better-played match than 2012) are likely to occupy a less central place in the proceedings this Sunday.
Nadal’s beefed-up serve against Djokovic’s best-ever return will be one of the main centerpieces of the match. Nadal has played this Australian Open with a much greater intent on winning points quickly and easily. Everyone can see this is how Rafa will prolong his career. Traveling the long route to victory isn’t as realistic a plan for Nadal, unlike 2012.
Djokovic and Nadal did play a Wimbledon semifinal lasting 5:16, but that involved a 10-8 final set. The 18-game set amounted to 1.5 sets of tennis, unlike the final set in Melbourne in 2012, which lasted 12 games, the maximum length for a non-tiebreaker set.
When the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal completed the 12th game in the fifth and final set (6-6), Djokovic and Nadal had played for 4:40, a good 73 minutes less than their 2012 endurance test. Grass played a role in shortening that match, but as this 2019 reunion in Australia arrives, the reality of playing hardcourt tennis — and knowing one can’t invite the possibility of more bodily deterioration in the coming months and years — should make both men aware of the need to play a similarly more aggressive match.
Absorb this nuance: The match might last a long time simply because it is close, and because there might be stacks of five-deuce games between two iconically great players who save tons of break points while also putting constant pressure on the other’s serve. It is less likely to be a long match as a specific product of long rallies. The number of points played will extend this match, not playing style — at least not on the same scale as 2012.
Nadal and Djokovic reuniting in an Australian Open final, seven years after their previous meeting, might represent a “repeat occasion,” something which is technically true. Yet, this is also a “fresh” scenario in that the last time these two men met in Melbourne, they were coming off taxing semifinals. Djokovic beat Andy Murray in 4:50, while Nadal beat Federer in “only” 3:42.
The two 2019 semifinals COMBINED did not last 3:42. Nadal’s previous Australian Open semifinal — in 2017 against Grigor Dimitrov — lasted a few minutes longer than the Djokovic-Murray 2012 semifinal. It had an effect in Rafa’s subsequent final against Federer.
With Djokovic and Nadal breezing through their semifinals, this notion and construct of a shared willingness to grind each other into the ground will take on less significance and centrality. In 2012, though, it was front and center in this rivalry.
The 2012 Australian Open final was a Rorschach Test for tennis observers and tennis fans. It certainly did feature the admirable fighting qualities of two genuinely extraordinary champions. Yet, for some onlookers, the display of “warrior tennis” offered the impression to fans and — importantly — the rest of the ATP Tour that this was the necessary path to being great. Many would look at Nadal’s constant pain over the course of his career and say that this is not sustainable for most players.
The impending (though possibly reconsidered/withdrawn) retirement of Andy Murray offered a very sobering reminder about the toll modern tennis takes on the human body, especially in a hardcourt-dominated tour. Tumaini Carayol beautifully wrote and reported this piece at The Ringer on the price a tennis player pays to be successful.
The 2012 Australian Open final was, for many, a depressing byproduct of a tennis ecosystem with homogenized, medium-speed surfaces which encourages longer matches and rallies, thereby creating a weekly product which pushes bodies past their natural limits and discourages styles of play (serve and volley) which limit wear and tear on the body. The 2012 Australian Open final was, for many, a validation and vindication not of Djokovic and Nadal, but of the other Big 3 player who wasn’t good enough to play in either that final OR this one in 2019: Federer.
Such is the endlessly fascinating and endlessly complicated reality of this era of tennis.
Should the 2012 Australian Open men’s singles final be celebrated or lamented… or both?… or neither?
The fairest way to address this question without offering my own personal answer is that there is room for any line of interpretation from just about any vantage point.
All I would ask is that you honor the excellence of Djokovic and Nadal, two extraordinary athletes and champions, as they prepare to play a title match which feels at once so utterly familiar and yet promises to be something different from what we have seen before.