Novak Djokovic has cemented his status as one of the greats of the modern era, following a marathon, paint-peeling, occasionally baffling Australian Open final.
The indefatigable Serb looked cooked at times, debilitated by a leg ailment that seemed to sap his legs of power, but rattled home to defeat Andy Murray in four sets, 7-6 6-7 6-3 6-0.
He joins Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall and Fred Perry as an eight-time grand slam winner and will now turn his attention to Paris and the clay of Roland Garros, where he chases the only major to have eluded him.
He has also now won five Australian titles, a record in the open era, surpassing Andre Agassi and Roger Federer.
Djokovic said after the match that he had lost strength in his quadriceps and went through some “crisis moments”, in which his legs went from under him, but that he knew he had to work through the problem.
Murray, despite playing some brilliant tennis early, was as tightly wound and as tortured as ever, continually berating himself and ranting aloud at the change of ends as the match slipped away from him.
From 3-3 in the third set, the Scot managed to lose nine straight games, becoming the first man to lose the last set of an Australian Open final 6-0.
He also became the first man to lose four Australian finals in the open era.
Going into the final, there was considerable history between the pair. Born just seven days apart, they have known each other since they were kids.
Both endured childhood tumult: the Serb’s practice sessions were regularly interrupted by NATO bombs, while the Scot narrowly avoided being a victim of the 1996 Dumblane massacre.
It was fifth time they had squared off in a grand slam final. Both play an attritional, counter-punching game that relies on their bodies being sound.
While Murray’s finest hours have come against the Serb (Flushing Meadow 2012; Wimbledon a year later), Djokovic has consistently had his measure on the Plexicushion of Melbourne. Indeed, if ever a surface was tailor-made for one man’s game, it is the acrylic-based, even-paced hardcourt of Rod Laver Arena.
In a fortnight where he never quite looked right, never quite looked like the toe-to-toe brawler who would slug it out all night, Djokovic certainly turned up the wick when it mattered.
In the preceding few rounds, he had appeared strangely subdued, a little distracted perhaps, and unable to get any consistency on his forehand.
In the final, from the moment he read Murray’s serve with a screaming crosscourt return to break, he was obviously switched on.
The opening set was brutal, with multiple breaks of serve, a stumble from the Serb, an injury time-out, scintillating passing shots, long rallies and, inevitably, a tie-break.
At 5-5, Murray overhit a duffer of a volley. Djokovic duly served it out and the most tense and gruelling of sets had been decided – as has so often been the case in this golden era of men’s tennis – by a matter of centimetres.
In his opening service game of the subsequent set, the Serb landed awkwardly, appearing to roll an ankle. He dropped serve and, for several minutes, resembled one of the old-timers on the legends doubles circuit.
It momentarily evoked memories of last year’s final, when Nadal was hobbled, booed and humbled.
But the titanium tough Serb has an astonishing ability to start every point anew.
Whether the previous point features a shank, a double fault, a roll of the ankle, an overrule, a spanking backhand down the line or a gladiatorial bellow, it seems to have no bearing on what he does next.
He sucks in deep breaths, nods to the ball kid, bounces the ball and starts again. Within minutes, he was scampering, sliding and scuppering the Scot.
At 4-2 up, he suddenly had all the momentum. But the appearance of a protester slamming Australia’s treatment of refugees halted play and afforded Murray the chance to regroup.
Murray was conspicuously the bolder and more inventive of the two, winning some bone-rattling rallies and easily holding sway in a second tiebreak.
The beginning of the third set was a virtual facsimile of the previous – Djokovic appeared physically spent, Murray quickly broke, the Serb found his legs again and promptly broke back.
It was as strange as it was impressive.
Murray was even harder to get a read on. He was volleying with aplomb one minute and double faulting and dropping serve the next.
Chastising himself continually, he went a set down but still seemed to have more petrol in the tank.
But Djokovic’s limps, lulls and lapses were deceiving.
In the fourth and deciding set, he was imperial, breaking thrice, battering Murray from the baseline, drop-shotting and hitting horizontal winners.
He closed out his fifth Australian Open title with a bagel, heaved a huge sigh of relief, blew a kiss to the crowd and left no-one in any doubt as to his fortitude and his standing in the history of the game.