MELBOURNE, Australia — If anyone knows how Novak Djokovic feels after sweating and scrapping for almost five hours in the Australian Open semifinals, it’s his next opponent — Rafael Nadal.
A day after Nadal beat Roger Federer in four compelling sets, Djokovic dug deep to overcome Andy Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-1, 7-5 on Friday night after 4 hours, 50 minutes.
Defending champion Djokovic will face Nadal in a third straight Grand Slam final on Sunday. It’s a reversal from three years ago, when Nadal had to regroup after his own lengthy semifinal.
The Spaniard needed 5 hours, 14 minutes in 2009 to get past compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the longest men’s singles match in the tournament’s history. He was so exhausted, he didn’t lift a racket the following day.
Yet when the final rolled around, he beat Federer — who had an extra day to rest — in five sets that reduced the usually composed Swiss player to tears.
Now a weary Djokovic has less than 48 hours to prepare to face Nadal, one of the most fit players in the game.
“I know that I maybe have a mental edge because I’ve won six finals. … We played in 2011 and I’ve had lots of success against him,” Djokovic said. “That’s going to be my main priority and concern the next day and a half, to physically be able to perform my best and be ready to play five sets.”
Djokovic won 10 titles in 2011, six of them by beating Nadal in finals. Just as Nadal has the mental edge over Federer, Djokovic has developed a hold over the Spaniard.
But the No. 1-ranked Djokovic has shown chinks in his armor at Melbourne Park this year. Against David Ferrer in the quarterfinals, he struggled to breathe through most of a straight-sets win and at one point, clutched his leg in agony.
Against Murray, he looked completely spent again when he hobbled gingerly back to his chair after dropping serve to go down 2-1 in the third set.
“He’s done it many times before,” Murray said. “He runs very well even when he’s breathing heavy. I was ready for that. He was similar in the last match. But he moved fine.”
Murray had his own slump when he lost the fourth set in 25 minutes — an aberration in a match featuring long baseline rallies that quite often ended in errors.
One rally in the eighth game of the second set ended after 41 shots. The third set lasted nearly an hour and a half, with the opening game taking almost 15 minutes alone. There was one serve-volley point in the entire match, won by Murray.
The gap between the top-ranked player and the No. 4 was mostly indiscernible throughout a match featuring 18 breaks of serve and almost as many changes in momentum.
When a scampering Murray knocked a forehand into the net on the final point, Djokovic collapsed onto the court. He shared a warm hug with his old friend Murray, sank to his knees and did the sign of the cross, then turned to his players’ box and thumped his chest.
Many of his 70 match wins in 2011 seemed to come easy — this was anything but.
“Definitely one of the best (wins) under the circumstances,” Djokovic said. “Time wise, I think this was one of the longest, if not the longest, that I’ve played in the later stages of a Grand Slam.
“As a tennis player, you practice hard every single day knowing that you will get an opportunity to be part of such a great match and on such a high level.”
After losing the last two finals at the Australian Open, Murray went out a round earlier this time but left more encouraged than ever that he can break through and become the first British man to win a Grand Slam singles title since 1936.
“Tonight’s match was important for many reasons,” the 24-year-old Murray said. “Obviously I wanted to win first and foremost. But also sort of after last year, the year that Novak’s had, I think there’s a very fine line between being No. 1 in the world and being 3 or 4. I think that gap, I feel tonight I closed it.
“My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me.”
After Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova go for the women’s title and the No. 1 ranking on Saturday, Djokovic will bid for his fifth major title in Sunday men’s final, with the chance to become only the fifth man in the Open Era to win three straight Grand Slam titles.
If he can achieve that, Djokovic would make 10-time Grand Slam winner Nadal the first man since the Open Era began in 1968 to lose three straight major finals. Just like Nadal three years ago, Djokovic doesn’t plan on doing much before Sunday’s final.
“I think I had enough time spent on the court. Now it’s all about recovery,” said Djokovic, who has won 19 consecutive Grand Slam matches.
After a year in which almost everything went his way and he overtook Nadal and Federer for the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic is just finding out what it feels like to be the hunted rather than the hunter.
“I’m aware now that everyone wants to win the major title, get that No. 1 spot, he said. “It’s normal. It’s something I’m prepared for.”