Less than a month into the new tennis season and the ATP tour has exploded into life, with the world’s best two players once again at the heart of the drama.
Following a sporting year like the one Novak Djokovic had in 2011, it is always interesting to see the response of the competitor once a new season begins.
Across various sports, there have often been examples where either a team or an individual have put so much into reaching impossible heights within the space of one season, only to find that their efforts have taken a toll physically and mentally in a way which has lasting consequences.
It was clear – and understandable – that Djokovic was tiring towards the end of the 2011 ATP season, and while his status as world number one was never in doubt, he was always going to find that 2012 would ask a different set of questions.
Could last year’s extraordinary season possibly be repeated? Could Djokovic fend off renewed and determined challenges from Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal? Would there even be scope for yet more improvement?
If the Australian Open is anything to go by, the answer to those questions has been emphatically positive.
There remains much for the Serb to do in order to earn a place among the game’s greats, but even though his third Australian Open title ranks as his most memorable triumph, his two most likely rivals have also laid down a strong statement of intent for the season and will themselves emerge from the two-week tournament with a great deal of credit.
Andy Murray fought Djokovic all the way to a tense fifth set conclusion in the semi finals and has the potential to pose an equally strong challenge if he can build on his Australian showing.
Nadal meanwhile, beaten on every occasion he faced Djokovic last year, spoke of how he had lost some of his passion for the sport towards the end of last year after a tough season.
But he also acknowledged that he needed to work harder if he was to get back to competing at the top.
The Spaniard shown a determination during the Australian final that has been missing from his game since losing the US Open final in September, and the evidence from Melbourne is that Nadal’s hunger has returned.
Djokovic won many plaudits for the way he battled against Nadal, one of the game’s greatest competitors, for almost six hours. Less attention was given to the fact that the reverse was also true, and there’s no other player on the tour at the moment who could compete with Djokovic throughout a match lasting so long.
That Nadal even lost the match was in some ways his own doing, when taking into account some of his errors at crucial times, most notably in the final set when, already a break up, he missed an opportunity to cement his advantage by hitting the ball out at the net with the whole court to aim at.
Djokovic himself faulted on a shot at 5-3 up in the fourth set tie break, but having turned that around to take it into a deciding fifth set, Nadal had no margin for further mistakes.
The major error he did make, which set Djokovic on the way to breaking back, didn’t just ensure that the contest was levelled, but swung momentum back in Djokovic’s favour at a time when it looked like he was heading for certain defeat.
The thin line between success and failure was visibly demonstrated and if there was ever a match which deserved to be called a draw, this was it.
Unfortunately for Nadal there did have to be a runner-up, but if the match is a taste of what this growing rivalry will offer during 2012, he’ll have many more opportunities and it certainly won’t be long before he takes one.