Over and over the rallies went. 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 shots, and after it was done both players sagged after each and every punishing point. Both Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer looked like they were on the point of breaking their rackets, the tennis balls, their bodies. Neither of them seemed willing to concede an inch, as point after point dragged on through deuce after deuce.
Only one of them went tumbling. The other strode confidently onto the semis, proving why he held the rank of number one.
This was not much of an offensive show filled with dazzling highlights. This was about watching two players cover court and holding their ground. It was very much like watching the 49ers-Giants of tennis, with neither player and letting up an inch defensively, forcing the other to find any weakness to break through. It was filled with great rallies with neither player letting the other hit an easy winner, seeming to be rather content with a tennis ball hitting net than bouncing toward a wall. If it came toward their side of the court, they were laying smack on that thing.
Unlike 49ers-Giants, this one ended with one of the challengers breaking through and proving themselves the clear winner. Djokovic proved he was the superior player on this evening in Melbourne, taking over after surviving the initial onslaught.
Djokovic went round-for-round for Ferrer, as the Spaniard forced the top tennis player in the world to cover all areas of the court. Ferrer would move the tennis ball from one side of the court to the other by hitting the corners, and Djokovic had to go bending and breaking to sides of the court. Djokovic was doing splits on the court to keep points alive, and waiting for Ferrer to shoot himself, which he eventually did. Ferrer committed 36 errors to 18 winners, a stat that usually provides a good way for an underdog to die in a tournament.
It's remarkable to think of how much Djokovic has grown in a year and half. Back then, these matches would've worn him down and might've gotten the better of him. But his championship year has provided him with the toughness to battle through these rough points, plus his game is as complete as ever. Djokovic was grimacing at his hamstring after one vicious point, but he got right back up and won a crucial tiebreaker in the second set to take full control of the match. Djokovic looked sore and battered after each pause in the action, yet glided gracefully on the court and struck spots where Ferrer had no chance of hitting points.
It was an exercise in endurance, and Djokovic always seemed to come out ahead. Djokovic seemed to be telling Ferrer, "You can bring your best game at me, you can keep on making me chase after your best shots, you can hit back over and over again against my best, but I WILL NOT FOLD." It has to be an utterly demoralizing feeling to know that your best isn't good enough, and Ferrer seemed to pack in the tent by the third set, like he knew he had no chance to win 18 to 21 more of these games against this guy. What Ferrer was good at, Djokovic was better at.
Djokovic was as error-prone as his opponent with 39 unforced errors, but his 35 winners made the difference in pulling away. Djokovic didn't play great tennis, his opponent was arguably equal in spirit and endurance, and he STILL pulled away in straight sets. He can take it and he can deal it, the mark of an emerging tennis legend.
Djokovic left Rod Laver Arena a worn-out man, but these are the matches that he'll have to pull out to make him one of the greats. And if he keeps on playing like he did on Thursday night, it might not be long before he catches up with them all.