It had all the ingredients for an epic. The world’s top two players. A slice of history or a successful comeback. An improved server against the best returner on the planet.
A pair of dud semi-finals only increased the anticipation for Sunday evening’s Australian Open men’s singles decider, but this was another one-sided affair as Novak Djokovic produced his breathtaking best on the big stage on Rod Laver Arena.
The Serbian was outstanding from go to whoa in a comprehensive 6-3 6-2 6-3 win over Rafael Nadal that gave him a record seventh singles title at Melbourne Park.
This was just Djokovic and Nadal’s second career meeting at the Australian Open, the first being an unforgettable 2012 final that the former edged in five hours and 53 minutes.
And while this final was memorable, too, it was due to Djokovic’s brilliance rather than a topsy-turvy contest between two of the sport’s greatest ever players.
Djokovic burst out of the blocks and never looked back, losing just one point on serve in a 37-minute first set.
And try as he might, Nadal could never get a foothold in the match after that, Djokovic snuffing out any half-chance with another outstanding display.
He made just five unforced errors in his cakewalk victory against Lucas Pouille in Friday’s semi-final and made only nine in the decider as Nadal did not get a look in.
Djokovic has now won 15 men’s singles grand slam titles, leaving him behind only Nadal (17) and Roger Federer (20).
He has contested seven finals in Melbourne, winning all of them, while Nadal’s record is now one victory from five deciders at the Australian Open.
Unsurprisingly, this was Nadal’s heaviest defeat in a grand slam final.
The tournament was the Spaniard’s first bout of competitive tennis since the US Open in September, after knee and thigh issues forced him into the treatment room.
Djokovic had injury battles in 2018, too, but victory in Melbourne sees him hold three of the four grand slam titles as his successful comeback from major right elbow surgery continued.
“I had the surgery exactly 12 months ago and to be standing now here in front of you today and managing to win this title and three out of four slams is truly amazing,” Djokovic said afterwards.
Djokovic went on to say the Open “definitely is the best tournament in the world”, hardly surprising given his astonishing record of success at the event.
— Wide World of Sports (@wwos) January 27, 2019
Jim Courier said on the Nine Network coverage that Djokovic’s tennis had “taken my breath away” and Nadal acknowledged his opponent was simply too good.
“Many congratulations to Novak and all his team. It was an amazing level of tennis tonight,” a typically classy Nadal said afterwards.
“Sometimes this tournament has been tough for me in terms of injuries and other times in terms of opponents, like tonight … I’m going to keep fighting.
“I have been going through tough moments during the last year … even if tonight was not my night … I really believe I played a great two weeks of tennis.”
Fast start sets the tone
Djokovic came out breathing fire, racing to a 3-0 advantage on the back of a crucial break and two holds to love.
He had another break point to take a 4-0 lead and although Nadal eventually got going, it was too late for him to contend in the first set.
Djokovic continued to hold serve with ease and broke again in the fifth game of the second set when, after a long and tense rally, Nadal misfired with an overhead backhand.
A seven-minute game immediately followed as Nadal did his best to break back, but Djokovic held firm and celebrated considerably.
It was a big moment and both players knew it, Djokovic then breaking again to claim the second set.
The third set followed the same script; Nadal having to fight to hold serve and usually getting nowhere near Djokovic on his.
And when Nadal did win a rare break point, in the sixth game of the third and final set, another error stopped him in his tracks.
One final break sealed Djokovic’s title, leading to an eruption of noise both inside Rod Laver Arena and from the hordes of Serbian fans camped inside Garden Square.
The likes of Alex de Minaur and Stefanos Tsitsipas may have truly emerged at the Australian Open, while Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty are now genuine stars.
Andy Murray might never play in Australia again, too, but for all the change we have seen in tennis over the past fortnight, Djokovic ensured another action-packed event in Melbourne ended on a very familiar note.