- Chris Wilkinson
Rumble in the Jungle meets El Clasico - it's Nadal v NovakChris Wilkinson January 31, 2012
If anyone had any doubts about whether Novak Djokovic could maintain the level of tennis he played in 2011, I think he answered them in emphatic fashion, winning a thrilling Australian Open final, beating Rafael Nadal in a brutal five-set encounter lasting nearly six hours.
I certainly didn't think I would still be watching tennis at 2 o'clock on Sunday afternoon! It is always easy to lose perspective with these things, but I really do think Sunday's final will be remembered as one of the greatest matches of all time.
It was the longest match grand slam final in the Open era, and as the match progressed the tennis just got better and better. It pushed them both to the very limits, both physically and mentally - neither player could have given any more. They played each shot like it was match point, and they were both drained at the end of it.
I really think it will be remembered not just as one of the top tennis matches of all time, but as one of the greatest sporting encounters. Think Rumble in the Jungle meets El Clasico. It had everything - drama, endurance, skill, and hunger - everything you want to see in sport.
When you look at the movement of the players on court, playing at that level for nearly six hours you realise the top tennis players must be some of the fittest athletes in sport. Right to the last shot they were fighting for every point and when you consider that by the time they had finished it was gone one o'clock in the morning it just makes their performance all the more impressive.
Every sport is different but they showed tremendous athleticism and real mental toughness - it is not just physical it is mental endurance as well. To stay focused out there on court for the best part of six hours, when any lapse in concentration would see your opponent profit, just defies belief.
Just when it looked like Djokovic was running on empty against Nadal, he managed to find another five per cent. It is still early stages and the rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal is some way off matching the rivalry Nadal has enjoyed with Roger Federer over the years, but I'm sure we'll be seeing a few more clashes between the two this season.
Djokovic has taken the game to a whole new level, and now Nadal is trying to catch up with him. He failed on six occasions to beat Djokovic last year, and that was the closest he has come to beating him since the Serb won last year's Australian Open.
I think Nadal was shocked that someone had his number and all his efforts have been trying to work out how to beat Djokovic. He has had to up his game and in the last couple of matches he played better than all of last season.
In all honesty I don't think Djokovic will be too concerned with defending all his titles between now and the French Open. His priority will be the Grand Slam. Although you have got to favour Nadal on clay, Djokovic beat him in Madrid and Rome last year and he has the hunger and the fitness to succeed.
I can't see anyone beyond the current top four challenging for slams any time soon - I can see them dominating men's tennis for a few more years. Players like Juan Martin del Potro needs to step up to the mark and it would be good to see Robin Soderling back in action, but realistically I don't think the likes of Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer can catch the frontrunners.
I said before the Australian Open than I though Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could challenge for a major in 2012, but until he sorts his inconsistency issues he will never fulfil his potential. Kei Nishikori is a good player but he is nothing special and I really think Tsonga should have at least made the quarter-finals.
Murray may not have reached the final, so will have lost ranking points, but there were a lot of positive signs from his performance in Melbourne. Yes, he ultimately came up short, but his defeat to Djokovic will have given him a lot of confidence that he can go toe-to-toe with the best player in the world over five sets.
The hard work starts now. He has only been working with Ivan Lendl for three weeks and it would have been too soon for Lendl to really make a difference. Lendl will have been getting to know Murray and taking notes, and now they have a relatively clear run through to the American hard court season in March, so for me it will be interesting to see how he plays in Indian Wells and Miami - where he hasn't done particularly well over the last couple of years.
The women's draw is always wide open and for the fourth straight slam we have a new major champion. We always knew Victoria Azarenka had the game to win a slam, but she was always a bit mentally fragile. She is the new world No. 1 and I think it is great news for the women's game - it is always good to have a grand slam champion at the top of the world rankings.
What's more, the top players seem to be getting a bit more consistent - Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova were the world No. 2 and 4 going into the tournament and along with Azarenka (No. 3 seed) they all made the semi-finals. Top seed Wozniacki had a tough draw against defending champion Kim Clijsters, and it is promising that both semi-finals were high-quality encounters.
Azarenka needs to be careful she doesn't lose momentum now. We've seen it with all first-time grand slam winners recently - Kvitova and Li Na, Wimbledon and French Open champions respectively, crashed out in the first round of the US Open, while US Open champion Sam Stosur was dumped out in the first round in Melbourne.
There is a temptation to relax a little, but the hard work must continue - now Azarenka is a grand slam champion and world No. 1, everyone will be gunning for her, and she must learn to play with the heightened expectation that brings.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1