Djokovic, Azarenka capture Australian Open titles

Posted Jan. 29, 2012, at 7:44 p.m.

MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic ripped off his shirt and let out a primal scream, flexing his torso the way a prize fighter would after a desperate, last-round knockout.

This was the final act in Djokovic’s 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final — a sweat-drenched, sneaker-squeaking 5 hour, 53-minute endurance contest that ended at 1:37 a.m. Monday morning in Melbourne.

Djokovic overcame a break in the fifth set to win his fifth Grand Slam tournament and third in a row. None, though, quite like this. This one involved tears, sweat and, yes, even a little blood. It was the longest Grand Slam singles final in the history of pro tennis and it came against Nadal, the player who built a career on his tenacity — on outlasting opponents in matches like these.

“It was obvious on the court for everybody who has watched the match that both of us, physically, we took the last drop of energy that we had from our bodies,” Djokovic said. “We made history tonight and unfortunately there couldn’t be two winners.”

In the women’s final on Saturday night, Victoria Azarenka routed three-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in 1 hour, 22 minutes on Saturday night, winning 12 of the last 13 games after dropping her first service game and falling behind 2-0.

“It’s a dream come true,” Azarenka said. “I have been dreaming and working so hard to win the Grand Slam, and being No. 1 is pretty good bonus. Just the perfect ending and the perfect position to be in.”

Azarenka had won 11 straight matches, including a run to the Sydney International title, and reached her first Grand Slam final. Her previous best performance at a major was a semifinal loss to Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon last year. Sharapova had all the experience, being in her sixth major final and having won three — dating to her 2004 Wimbledon title.

But it didn’t unnerve the 22-year-old Azarenka, the first woman from Belarus to win a singles major. She’s also the seventh different woman to win a Grand Slam since Francesca Schiavone won the 2010 French Open, and the fifth different winner in as many majors.

Azarenka became only the third woman to earn the No. 1 spot after winning her first major title. She moved from No. 3 to No. 1 in the rankings, helped by Caroline Wozniacki’s loss in the quarterfinals.

The third-seeded Azarenka set up championship point with a stunning forehand, her 14th clean winner, and sealed it when Sharapova netted a backhand.

She dropped to her knees at the baseline with her hands over her face. She got up, held her hands up and jogged over to her coach, Sam Sumyk, in the stands to celebrate.

“The best feeling, for sure,” Azarenka said. “I don’t know about the game. I don’t know what I was doing out there. It’s just pure joy what happened. I can’t believe it’s over.”

And she paid special credit to her grandmother, “the person who inspires me the most in my life.”

In the men’s final, when the drama was finally over at Rod Laver Arena, the 24-year-old Djokovic joined Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Nadal as the only men who have won three consecutive majors since the Open Era began in 1968. Nadal was his vanquished opponent in all three.

Djokovic will go for the “Nole Slam” at Roland Garros in May.

As the players waited for the trophy presentation, Nadal leaned on the net, while Djokovic sat on his haunches. Eventually, a nearby official took pity and they were given chairs and bottles of water.

Nadal held his composure during the formalities, and even opened his speech with a lighthearted one-liner.

“Good morning, everybody,” he said.

A few minutes earlier, after hugging Nadal at the net, Djokovic tore off his sweat-soaked black shirt and headed toward his players’ box, pumping his arms repeatedly as he roared. He walked over to his girlfriend, his coach and the rest of his support team and banged on the advertising signs at the side of the court.

“I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and matter of wanting this more than maybe other player in the certain point,” Djokovic said. “It’s just incredible effort. You’re in pain, you’re suffer(ing). You’re trying to activate your legs. You’re going through so much suffering your toes are bleeding. Everything is just outrageous, but you’re still enjoying that pain.”

The match was full of long rallies and amazing gets. Djokovic finished with 57 winners, along with 69 unforced errors. Nadal had 44 winners against 71 unforced errors.

Laver was part of the 15,000-strong crowd when the players walked on at 7:30 p.m. Sunday to flip the coin and start the warmup. He was still there, along with most of the crowd, after 2 a.m. for the trophy presentations.

Djokovic called it the most special of his five Grand Slam wins.

“This one I think comes out on the top because just the fact that we played almost six hours is incredible, incredible,” he said. “I think it’s probably the longest finals in the history of all Grand Slams, and just to hear that fact is making me cry, really.

“I’m very proud just to be part of this history.”

It went so long because Nadal refused to yield. He was trying to avoid becoming the first man to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals — and seeing his losing streak in finals stretch to seven against Djokovic, who beat him for the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and took his No. 1 ranking last year.

After a grueling four-set loss to Djokovic at Flushing Meadows last year, Nadal said that, indeed, he may have found a slight opening — a glimmer of hope for next time against the player who dominated the 2011 season and had dismantled him time and again over the year.

This one was, in fact, closer, though not necessarily because of any strategic changes, but rather, because Rafa summoned up the heart to take this one the distance.

Nadal stayed in the contest for almost every point, sprinting from one side of the court to the other, chasing down balls and making Djokovic work extra time for the victory. But in the end, the same man was holding the trophy.

Nadal thought his win in the 2008 final against Federer was the best match he’s played, but gave Sunday’s match a top place in his personal rankings nonetheless.

“This one was very special,” he said. “But I really understand that was a really special match, and probably a match that’s going to be in my mind not because I lost, no, because the way that we played.”

Djokovic had his off moments during this two-week tournament Down Under. He appeared to struggle for breath in his quarterfinal win over No. 5 David Ferrer and again during his five-set semifinal win over No. 4 Andy Murray. He blamed it on allergies, and he managed to control it better against Nadal.

Yet, at times in the final, he looked as if he couldn’t go on.

When Nadal fended off three break points at 4-4 in the fourth set to win the game, spectators jumped to their feet and chanted “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa!” Djokovic had lost the momentum. Play was stopped moments later when rain started to fall and a suddenly animated Nadal threw his arms up in disbelief and walked slowly back to his chair. The stadium roof was then closed.

Djokovic picked up his game after a 10-minute break and his pockets of supporters waved their Serbian flags again and started their own competing chant of “Nole, Nole, Nole” — inserting Djokovic’s nickname where “Ole” belongs in the tune and rhythm of the Spanish soccer chant.

It wasn’t enough to get him through the tiebreaker in the fourth set, though, when Nadal won the last four points to finish it in 88 minutes. Nadal dropped to his knees on the baseline and pumped his arms at that point, celebrating as if he’d won the final. All he’d done was prolong it. This pair had never gone to five sets.

Just as he did during the first set, Djokovic took off a white shirt and replaced it with a black one.

It didn’t seem to help immediately as he went down a break and a defeat loomed.

The match clock hit 5 hours with the score 2-2 in the fifth. Nadal won the next point and Djokovic started to stumble slightly, unsteady on his feet.

Nadal held that game without losing a point and then broke Djokovic for a 4-2 lead.

The turning point came in the next game, when Nadal had an open court but knocked a backhand volley wide down the line. He challenged the call, but the ball was clearly out. Instead of being up 40-15 and one point from a 5-2 lead, the game score became 30-30.

Djokovic found energy again and got a break point with a backhand that forced an error from Nadal. He pounced on a Nadal second serve to convert the break as the match clock ticked to 5:15, confirming it as the longest match in the history of the Australian Open. Nadal had that record, at 5:14, in his five-set semifinal win over fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in 2009.

This match had already long surpassed Mats Wilander’s win over Ivan Lendl at the 1988 U.S. Open, in 4:54, as the longest final in the terms of duration.

Djokovic started to look better physically and Nadal started to make some unforced errors, giving the Serbian some extra seconds between points to get his heavy breathing under control. After getting back on serve at 4-4, Djokovic kissed the crucifix around his neck twice.

With Nadal serving, the pair engaged in a 31-shot rally that Nadal finally won when Djokovic committed a backhand error. The Serb fell flat on his back on the court, fully stretched out, arms over his head, while Nadal doubled over on his side of the court, hands perched on his knees.

It appeared Djokovic was ready to throw in the towel, but he said he never thought about staying down.

“At that point I was just thinking of getting some air and trying to recover for next point,” he said. “Thousand thoughts going through the mind. Trying to separate the right from wrong. Trying to prioritize the next point. I’m playing against one of the best players ever — the player that is so mentally strong. He was going for everything or nothing.”

When Djokovic got the break to go up 5-4, the Serbian fans jumped up with their flags and screamed while the rest of the crowd sat in stony silence.

After kissing the crucifix around his neck repeatedly in the later games, Djokovic openly prayed out loud and looked upward as he got within points of sealing his victory.

“I was trying find every possible help and energy that I possibly can,” he said. “It paid off I guess.”

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