2012 saw a lot of closely fought contests all through the year.
A close look at the three-setters at three different periods in the season tells a nice little story. The season’s first week saw a tight final in Chennai between Janko Tipsarevic and Milos Raonic in which neither player broke the other, with the match getting decided in three tie breaker sets. The year’s last final at the World Tour Finals in London was probably the most competitive, high quality, straight-sets affair of the year with Djokovic winning 96 points to Federer’s 95. And around the middle of the year was the longest three-setter in the history of the game when del Potro and Federer squared off to try and guarantee their nations a medal at the Olympics (Federer won 19-17 in the third).
As far as the five-setters were concerned, the finals of all 4 Grand Slams offered high quality drama with the 4 different trophies going to 4 different players; something that had not happened between 2004 and 2011. Fans couldn’t have asked for more.
There had to be one cherry at the top of this cake of a season, though. Which one was it?
When one records the stats of all top matches in a table and sorts them by any particular statistic, there would be one match which would appear as the first record in almost all such tables. The 5 hour 53 min epic that Nole and Rafa dished out in the final of Australian Open, sending fans into moments of ultimate thrills and delirium, is our ATP Match of the Year!
A lot was at stake for both the players coming into the final. Djokovic had made Rafa his bunny in 2011, winning all 6 matches (all were finals) they contested in the season. But as cliched as it may sound, Rafa knew 2012 was a new season coming with new hopes of reversal of fortunes. The stage was set for him to right the wrongs of the past season against a growing nemesis. For Djokovic, the fight was against himself – against his impeccable 2011; against his own will to conquer his inner demons; against his senses which could any day host an uninvited guest – complacency. He had done the ‘close-to-unthinkable’ of coming back from being a break down in the decider in the last two Grand Slam semifinals he had played (2011 US Open against Federer; 2012 Australian Open against Murray). And just like this time in Melbourne, Rafa was the man waiting for him in the final on the first occasion as well.
The final match held the promise of having all the answers. The answers had to come.The match had to start. It did.
The first set gave its quota of drama as Rafa took the first break to go up 3-2 when an impatient Djokovic sent a backhand long. The defending champion broke back later to level things at 4-4, but Rafa proved that his slight dominance was enough to win the first battle in the war. First set to Rafa – 7-5! Among the fans of Rafa who had come in huge numbers, whoever thought their man had one hand on the trophy already had probably not seen the duo’s contests in Indian Wells and Miami the year before.
Novak, unsurprisingly, came to the party to take the second set 6-4 and he continued his dominance from the baseline in a blemish-free third set, taking it with a thumping 6-2 scoreline.
When Rafa is around, it’s not very smart to think he would fizzle out when he is down. The strongest evidence for this statement came when Rafa was serving at 3-4 in the 4th set and was down 0-40, thanks to three sublime winners from the racket of Nole (an ethereal backhand down-the-line, followed by a wrong-footing cross-court shot and a blistering forehand). Any other player would have hung up his boots but Rafa ran, aced and fist-pumped his way to level things at 4-4. The shift in momentum was evident as Rafa quickly took the set to a tiebreaker, which he won 7 points to 5. The fact that the usually humble and respectful Rafa celebrated his opponent’s unforced errors showed how important this outing was for the Spaniard.
Set five started off nonchalantly as both players held serve twice to take it to 2-2 when the match went into its 6th hour. The moment of truth seemed to have arrived (or at least it appeared so) when the composed and ever-emotional Uncle Toni leapt out of his seat, going ‘Vamos’ as Rafa broke for a 4-2 lead. The litmus test was here for Nole. He had done it against Roger and Murray. Could he do it against Rafa? The answer to this question came when Rafa served at 4-2, 30-15.
Aided by a strong serve, Rafa dominated the point before he made Djokovic rush to the net. The Djokovic volley gave enough time for Rafa to reach and time his shot and placement while Nole was left stranded in the middle of the court. Even if Rafa had been woken from his sleep and given an attempt at that shot, he would have sent it past a helpless Djokovic. But not on this day, not at this defining moment. The mental burden of the force on the other side of the court showed up, making Rafa go for the line unnecessarily. What Rafa had done to Federer’s game, disintegrating it at the same place in the same set three years ago, had come back to haunt him.
Novak did his bit to take things from there to level back, and after one exchange of holds, he broke Rafa at 5-5. At 6-5, 40-40, the fighter in Rafa was still breathing. It took a Djokovic plea to the heavens to take him to match point but when the moment came, he seized it handsomely, serving to the T and hitting a winner off a poor Rafa return to seal the deal. Game, set and match, Djokovic, 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5. The scream, the tearing of the shirt and the masochistic celebration with his coach Vajda, trainer and others in the camp showed where this win was in Djokovic’s mind. Right at the top, where you would find the cherry on a cake!
Come to think of it, this was one match which gave sleepless nights to tennis fans across the world. In North and South America, people had to burn the midnight oil thanks to time zone differences; in Australia and parts of Asia, the match went late into the night, which Rafa humorously pointed out by starting his runners-up speech with “Good Morning, everybody!” with his trademark boyish innocence. In Europe, sleep would have eluded fans of both the players, ecstasy being the reason in Serbia and agony being the reason in Spain. However, from the break of dawn the next day, apart from an amazing display of athleticism, court coverage and usage of angles, the match stands as a testament of a few inspiring lessons for life (my take of which can be read here.)
Here’s to the best match of 2012 and to two champions who made it what it was! Below are the official highlights of the match:
Catch the rest of the awards here: 2012 Tennis Awards