First of all a thank you is in order for Novak Djokovic. No, not for beating Rafael Nadal in the longest ever Grand Slam final or for giving us one of the best sporting matches ever (or actually a bit for that too along with Rafa) but for pushing the Spaniard to become an even better player than he was even when he was winning everything. Well, almost everything.
The six hour epic on Sunday night was witnessed by a large population and sadly the only thing that many took home was the statistic of Nadal ending up second best to Djokovic for the third successive time in a Grand Slam final and for the seventh consecutive time in a final overall. They failed to see the many amazing things Rafa managed to achieve in the due course of not just that defeat but through the Australian Open in reply to every loss that Novak has put him through.
Not only is the hunger, motivation and passion that Nadal admitted to missing last year back but the weaponry has also become deadlier. Nadal has always been more of a wear, tear and dare sort of a player than ace, dictate the pace and race to the finish kind. It probably explains why Nadal has been a constant in most marathon matches in recent times - plenty of which, by the way, are sure to go down as classics in tennis history.
Rafa, however, recently admitted to making some minor changes in his game after the end of last season to counter the challenge of Djokovic – these include being more aggressive and playing with a heavier racquet. He came good on his word in the Australian Open where he was seen being much more aggressive and hitting many more winners than one is accustomed to see coming through his racquet. His first serve also looked meaner, sharper and harder. Of course, he can still do a lot better in that department as witnessed in the second and third sets of the match, when, not only but largely, due to Nadal’s poor first serve percentage Djokovic took control of the final. It was nevertheless good to see him trying to hit more aces and near unreturnable serves than before.
Nadal himself was as aware of these positives despite being physically and mentally exhausted after the match.
"(I'm) very happy with my level during both weeks. I realise the whole tournament I did well. I did a lot of very positive things, much more than in 2011 for most of the time," Nadal said right after the game.
"I played more aggressive. I played more winners than ever. My serve worked well. The mentality and the passion were there (better than ever).
"So that's very positive aspects on the whole game. So I just lost the final of a grand slam. I am not happy to lose the final, yes, but that's one of the losses that I am happy with in my career," he added.
Apart from the above factors, Rafa’s fighting abilities were also back on display in the marathon final. Yes, Nadal did end up on the losing side and set an unwanted record of being the first player in the open era to lose three consecutive Grand Slam finals, but he finally showed the fighting spirit, the mental strength that have always defined Rafa but went missing from his repertoire, against Djokovic, last year.
Nadal, who was gracious in defeat, accepted as much.
"But I really understand that this 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," he said.
"I didn't play at a lower level than him for a long time (tonight), so that's a very positive thing for me. I am very happy about my mentality tonight. I never put him in this situation during 2011, so that's another positive thing for me. I didn't have mental problems today against him.”
"I wanted to win, but I am happy about how I did. I had my chances against the best player in the world today," said the World No. 2.
On Sunday, Nadal took a big step towards conquering the demons against Djokovic and even though he fell just short of putting the final nail in the coffin, with the self-belief and confidence back serving as his partner, his battle is already half won. Rafa will now slay the demon sooner than later.