MELBOURNE, Australia — The first point of the Australian Open men’s final on Sunday told the story of all that was to come.
With his opening serve, Novak Djokovic stretched Rafael Nadal wide, sending the Spaniard sprawling. Djokovic quickly had his longtime rival exactly where he wanted: off balance and unglued.
In a flash, as Nadal spun 360 degrees and scrambled to recover, Djokovic took a half-dozen confident steps forward. He lined up a backhand and then unleashed a buzzing winner that Nadal did not even try for.
Point won. Point made. Rafael Nadal: toast.
The match, held at Rod Laver Arena on a warm and slightly breezy evening, finished just 2 hours 4 minutes later, Djokovic winning in a full-blown knockout, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.
This was a win that tightened the 31-year-old Serb’s hold on the top spot in men’s tennis. It also elevated his name once again in the annals of tennis history. He now has a record seven Australian Open titles and has moved to sole possession of third place for major titles, with 15, breaking a tie with Pete Sampras.
The three powerhouse sets were as fine and dominating as Djokovic — or anyone — has ever played in a major tournament final.
“It ranks right at the top,” Djokovic said, assessing his performance at a news conference. “At this level, under these circumstances, it was truly a perfect match.”
He could not have seen this coming. Nobody could.
Djokovic versus Nadal, No. 1 vs. No. 2, was arguably the most anticipated match of the tournament. It was the first occasion in which these two tense rivals — who have now played 53 times on tour, with Djokovic winning 28 — had met in the finals of a Grand Slam event since 2014, when Nadal slipped by Djokovic in four sets at Roland Garros in Paris.
Given the scintillating way both had performed throughout the tournament, with Nadal winning every set he played in his first six matches and with Djokovic winning all but two, it seemed certain that they would duel once again deep into the Melbourne night.
It was a match that was expected to dust off hallowed memories of what might have been their greatest combined moment of glory. In 2012, the two played one of the most epic finals in Grand Slam history, right on Laver’s sea-blue center court: a 5-hour-53-minute marathon won by Djokovic, the longest major final ever.
But a reprise was not to be. What unfolded was not even a reasonable facsimile.
Still, the night had its own way of being unforgettable. The final failed to offer drama, but it did present beauty — that of a top-flight athlete, among tennis’s greatest champions, operating at the very peak of his powers.
“Things started so quick,” Nadal said, snapping his fingers twice to emphasize the point. “He was pushing me to every ball. He played so well. He hit so long. His return was fantastic. He was super quick.”
Nadal, 32, did not appear particularly downcast after the match. Instead, it seemed as if he had simply resigned himself to the result. He noted that he had been injured and had not been able to prepare for the tournament as he had wished. Indeed, after pulling out of his semifinal match at the United States Open last September and then having ankle surgery, he had not played a match on tour until this tournament began.
But he also allowed that there had been nothing he could really do on Sunday against Djokovic, saying it “was unbelievable, the way that he played, no doubt about that.”
Djokovic made only nine unforced errors. He lost just one point on his serve in the first set. He aggressively shortened every rally he could, keeping them to an average of five shots, a stunningly low number considering the long-distance finals he and Nadal have slugged out in the past. Riding pinpoint accuracy and depth, he so flummoxed Nadal that the Spaniard once swung and whiffed on a forehand.
Nadal, whose tally for major titles remains at 17, three behind Roger Federer’s record, threw all he could muster at the match, especially as it drained from his grip. He worked in as many drop shots as he could. He altered positioning on his returns. He moved early, trying to guess which way Djokovic was serving.
Djokovic led early in every stanza and never looked back. There was no tension. The match was shorter by 23 minutes than Saturday’s stirring women’s final between Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova, which also unfolded in three sets but was blessed by tension at every turn.
“For me, one of the most important objectives for the match was to start off well and bring the intensity and make sure that he also feels my presence,” said Djokovic, who looked remarkably calm and centered, both during the match and afterward. “He always makes sure that the opponent across the net feels his presence. That is how he plays. That’s how he behaves. He brings so much energy, jumping around, sprinting.
“It was crucial for me to start off with an early break. Having a set under my belt just made me relax a bit more, not really worry too much. After that, it was smooth.”
Smooth. Perfect summary.
But it should not be forgotten how far the two came to get to the finals, the hurdles overcome. There is Nadal with his injuries, which have piled up over the years, especially on hard courts. There is Djokovic with the way he struggled with his confidence and his health after winning the French Open in 2016. For two full tennis seasons, it felt as if he was lost in the wilderness, in matches including a fourth-round loss at Melbourne Park last year to the unseeded South Korean Hyeon Chung.
Djokovic underwent elbow surgery not long after that match. At first, the operation did not help his on-court results. He appeared to be a doubting and unhappy shadow of his self. Improbably, he found his game on the Wimbledon grass, winning the title there and then following that up with another championship at the U.S. Open in September.
According to the International Tennis Federation, Djokovic is the first man to record three streaks of three or more Grand Slam titles in a row. He won four straight from Wimbledon in 2015 to the 2016 French Open, and three in a row from Wimbledon in 2011 to the 2012 Australian Open.
His chance to hold all four major titles at the same time will come in four months at the French Open, which he has won only once (Nadal has been the champion at Roland Garros 11 times).
Sustain this level through the United States Open, and it is not impossible to imagine him winning a calendar-year Grand Slam. No man has done that since Rod Laver in 1969.
And what about reaching Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam titles?
Asked about those milestones on Sunday, Djokovic was his typically reflective self.
“I am aware that making history of the sport that I truly love is something special,” he said.
He then gave a nod to the kind of uncertainty that he knows very well, firsthand: the way injuries and loss of confidence can shake the very best of foundations. There are no sure bets.
“How many seasons are to come? I don’t know,” he added, noting that he was trying hard not to get too far ahead of himself. “I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come — and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.
“It’s still far.”
True, but if he keeps playing in the fluid, focused way he did on this Sunday evening in Melbourne, 20 Grand Slams will come into focus soon enough.