Novak Djokovic's epic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final dramatically demonstrated that Djokovic is still the best player in the game today. Since Nadal has accomplished so much more than Djokovic in Grand Slam events despite the fact that their careers almost perfectly overlap, it was fair to wonder if Djokovic's sensational 2011 campaign merely signified a one year wonder or in fact marked the belated rise of a true all-time great (Bjorn Borg's career--arguably still the greatest in the Open Era--was already all but over by the time he was Djokovic's age). I don't believe that one event necessarily proves or disproves a sweeping characterization of a player's career but the 2012 Australian Open certainly lends credence to the idea that soon--if not right now--Djokovic must be ranked somewhere among the all-time greats; I will refrain from making the all too common mistake, particularly among tennis commentators, of hastily proclaiming Djokovic to be the greatest player of all time, a pronouncement that seemed to follow every Grand Slam victory by Roger Federer--but it is clear that Djokovic is the greatest player of this time and the longer this time lasts the stronger a claim Djokovic will have to be ranked very highly on the all-time list.
Djokovic's triumph over Nadal is the longest Grand Slam singles final match ever, officially lasting 5:53. The play was hardly perfect--Djokovic committed 69 unforced errors while hitting 57 winners and Nadal had an even drearier ratio of 71 unforced errors to 44 winners--but it was fast, furious and tenacious, making for gripping viewing that may have been almost as emotionally draining for the spectators as it was for the players.
Djokovic has joined an elite group of men (Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) who won at least three Grand Slam singles titles in a row since the Open Era began in 1968; Nadal lost to Djokovic in each of those championship matches, earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first player to lose three straight Grand Slam finals. Nadal has now lost seven straight matches overall to Djokovic, each of them a finals match. Nadal still enjoys a narrow 16-14 advantage head to head, but Djokovic has the edge in finals matches (7-5) and Grand Slam finals (3-1). This was the first five set duel in the 30 Djokovic-Nadal encounters.
Nadal is just one year older than Djokovic but has won twice as many Grand Slam Singles titles (10-5). The Australian Open is the only Slam that Djokovic has won multiple times (three) and the French Open is the lone Slam that he has yet to win; Nadal has already completed the career Slam, along the way winning a pair of Wimbledon titles and tying Borg's record with six French Open crowns. Nadal twice won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year (2008 and 2010), coming close to equaling Borg's fantastic feat of winning both events for three consecutive years (1978-80; Borg won the French Open in 1974-75 and 1978-81 and he took five straight Wimbledons from 1976-80).
It is the beauty and agony of sports that dominance can balance on a razor's edge; in the 2007 NFL season, the New England Patriots came within three minutes of achieving unprecedented 19-0 perfection but the story of that season ultimately became not their drive for an undefeated championship season but rather the emergence of Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The story of the 2012 Australian Open ultimately is Djokovic's victory but Nadal came within two points of taking a 5-2 lead in the fifth set; if Nadal had come back from a two set to one deficit to triumph in five sets we undoubtedly would look at both players differently, even though objectively the difference between those divergent outcomes can be literally measured in inches.
Nadal survived three break points at 4-4 in the fourth set en route to winning that set in a tiebreaker and he seemed to have the match in hand when he took a 4-2 lead in the fifth set--but Nadal missed a routine backhand volley that could have put him up 40-15 in the seventh game and Nadal unraveled after that, while Djokovic managed to hit timely shots despite showing obvious signs of physical fatigue (I make a distinction between physical and mental fatigue because I think that the outcome--and those timely shots that Djokovic converted--indicates that he retained mental sharpness throughout the match even as his body began to betray him).
It is hard to take seriously the notion that Roger Federer is the greatest player of all-time for the simple reason that Federer is not even the greatest player of his time; Nadal owns a decisive 18-9 head to head advantage versus Federer, including a victory in the 2012 Australian Open semifinal that increased Nadal's margin over Federer in Grand Slam play to 8-2. Nadal has accumulated enough overall achievements to merit inclusion in the greatest player of all-time discussion; in addition to completing the career Slam, Nadal has won 10 career Grand Slam singles titles overall (tying with Bill Tilden for sixth-seventh on the all-time list) and he has spent 102 weeks as the number one ranked player (the sixth most since the ATP began using computerized rankings in 1973), finishing in the top spot in the year end rankings twice (2008 and 2010). If all Nadal had to his credit was a slight head to head advantage over Federer in a small number of matches then those head to head results would just be a bizarre historical footnote--but Nadal has beaten Federer decisively head to head in a large sample size of encounters and Nadal has not just defeated Federer due to some matchup quirk but he has also been a dominant player for quite some time. A little over a year ago, Djokovic was not even on the radar in terms of being the greatest player now--let alone the greatest player of all-time--and his recent head to head dominance against Nadal still has not wiped out the huge advantage that Nadal built up versus Djokovic in previous years. Djokovic is the best player right now but his overall career can not yet be compared favorably with Nadal's or Federer's. Instead of prematurely trying to rank and classify every player we should simply enjoy the great tennis being played by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer; the all-time rankings will sort themselves out over time, as we saw with the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry that started out lopsided in Evert's favor before becoming even more lopsided in Navratilova's favor.