A moment in time: Novak Djokovic beats Rafael Nadal in Iron Man 2012 Australian Open final

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Novak Djokovic celebrates after winning the Australian Open

There will be arguments about the GOAT until the last new ball from the ancient regime is struck. With 61 Grand Slams between them, we need to see clearer water between Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic to make a judgment. Even then, it’s always a muddied debate. Who knows how we value “the best”?

The bracket of top matches between these three kings is slightly easier to rank. The Emperor of Wimbledon horned by the young matador at Wimbledon 2008 was a changing of the guard. The Serb coming back from the brink to subjugate the Swiss for the third and greatest entry in their SW19 trilogy is also memorable.

How about Nadal’s incredible staying power to overcome a tearful Federer at the Australian Open in 2009? Likewise, Federer’s 2017 comeback against the same opponent at the same venue was stunning.

Decisions. Decisions. The same match means different things to different people. Nothing can ever be totally objective.

Nevertheless, there is one match, one final, where both gladiators were glad to be still standing (or sitting) at the end. That final was the 2012 Australian Open. It’s a decade ago but it still resonates as loudly as Djokovic’s primal scream at the end.

Up to the beginning of 2011, the Fedal regime had been gobbling up majors like Pac men. Federer entered the season on a haul of 16 while Nadal had reached nine, helped by six successive final victories.

Suddenly, sole Slam winner Djokovic found the ultimate gears to make himself a contender that could stay and outstay the elite club. The Serb won 70 out of 76 matches that season, including ten titles, with some imperious hitting. Nadal became his bunny in finals.

The Spaniard lost both the US Open and Wimbledon in 2011 and even came away second-best on the clay at Madrid and Rome: The new world No 1 said: “There is this saying that players use, that when you’re so confident that the tennis ball looks like a watermelon, so it probably is the case with me in the last couple of months,” he explained. “I’m emotionally stable, I’m very confident, I am fast on the court and I am just consistent.”

The first big thunder of 2012 came down to yet another showdown between the two. When Nadal took the first set 7-5, his nerd stat fans may have pointed to a 133-1 success record when taking the opening salvo in Slam matches.

It wasn’t the prettiest 12 games, littered with nerves and errors, but that suited the man from Mallorca. The Serb began to find his range in the second and third which he took 6-4, 6-2. The 24-year-old was going all boa constrictor on his quarry yet again.

Little did we know that the Spaniard would return from a closed roof break to return with a midnight karate kick as the clock entered the fourth hour of the match. The brutal fourth set ended in a tiebreak which Nadal took 7-2 after 88 rough house minutes.

This battle was more punishing than pulling a truck on your back while chasing down drop shots. The Djoker was the one that now looked cooked visibly. That’s a dangerous optic – as Andy Murray might tell you when he succumbed to his nemesis at Melbourne in the 2015 final.

So on we went, into the early hours of Monday at two sets all. The first sign of movement was in the sixth game when Djokovic went long and Nadal stormed 4-2 up. The Spaniard even had an open court for 40-15 and almost a 5-2 lead but knocked a backhand volley wide down the line. He came to regret that. A lot.

At 4-4, there was an epic 31-shot rally where Djokovic collapsed dramatically on his back after losing the point. Nadal wasn’t having any of it. He knew that the broken body over the net would reassemble to carry on regardless. In the eleventh game, Nadal sliced a backhand into the net as the match swayed back to the reigning champion.

Nadal refused to yield but somehow Djokovic plays break points as if they are a knock up at the Roehampton Club. When he put the final ball away, the two gladiators embraced. What followed wasn’t for the purists as the victor tore off his shirt like the Incredible Hulk on steroids and screamed into the void. It was an understandably unmuted reaction to winning the longest Slam final ever, clocking in at seven minutes shy of six hours.

Novak Djokovic celebrations at the 2012 Australian Open

Nadal saw the bigger picture beyond the immediate misery: “…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 returned the compliment: “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.” They did. They ran until they dropped. There will never be another final like it.

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