THE task of beating the world number one is not achieved by matching excellence but by sustaining it. A Swiss player who was not Roger Federer found he could play Novak Djokovic, and for five hours he could stay with him.
But after five sets, five hours and two minutes, and at 1.41am, Novak Djokovic finally prevailed over journeyman Stan Wawrinka in the most extraordinary match of the Australian Open.
Djokovic emerges triumphant
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Djokovic emerges triumphant
The match of the Australian Open so far saw world number one and defending champion Novak Djokovic take on 15th seed Stanislas Wawrinka.
"It's hard to find the words to describe the feeling we had tonight, especially in the fifth set. He deserved equally to be a winner of this match," Djokovic said after winning 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10 early on Monday.
"I give him a lot of credit, he has my respect ... he was the aggressive player on the court. I was just trying to hang in there, trying to fight. This match means a lot to me and to him.
"It's incredible, it's nearly 2am and so many people stayed to watch, it brings back the memories from 12 months ago with Rafa.
''The body feels great, it's only five hours of a match," he joked, when asked about the toll the five-set epic would take on his body. "We are only midway through the tournament but it feels like a final to me."
Djokovic confronted the very real possibility that for the first time in 15 consecutive grand slams he would not make the quarter-finals. Not since he was dismissed in the third round of the French Open in 2009 has the reigning world number one not featured in at least the quarter-final stages of a grand slam.
The ousting of Djokovic from the tournament would have opened up a chance for Federer to re-claim the number one ranking, were he to go on and win the Open and thus also claim an 18th major.
It was not to be. Djokovic, challenged and out-played for long periods, displayed his peerless ability to hunt down balls others would not and drew on the confidence that comes from having won three of the last five major tournaments.
"I just believed all the time I could fight my way back into the match... it could have really gone either way, this match," Djokovic said.
Wawrinka played superbly, then mentally baulked, went into his shell, came out again, cramped, fatigued, picked the crowd up to go with him, and pushed, cajoled, made errors on line calls, harried, hustled, and fought, but eventually, after five exhausting hours, he had to concede defeat.
Wawrinka ensured early on that this was a night to up-end sporting assumptions when he not only won the first set but also totally outclassed Djokovic. He broke Djokovic in an extraordinary five consecutive service games to take the set 6-1 in just 25 minutes. Djokovic was not necessarily playing poorly, Wawrinka was simply playing much better.
The pep in Wawrinka's game seemed to take Djokovic by surprise. Not that he would underestimate a 15th seed, but there would have been a reasonable expectation he would have Wawrinka covered, having beaten him the last 10 times they have met, and not having lost to him since 2006 in Vienna when he was but a teenager.
Wawrinka skipped out to a 5-2 lead and was 30-0 up on serve, just two points from taking a two-set lead in the match when one sensed that he realised the precipice on which he stood. It seems the "is this really happening" thought began ticking through his mind as, at the moment he needed to go for the kill, he went for the hot water bottle. He looked like a man who realised he had the chance to beat the world number one and didn't know how to do it. Where he had been daring, suddenly he was cautious.
For an hour and a quarter, Djokovic was uncertain, fidgety and flummoxed for answers. He had changed his shoes - to no avail - and changed his approach to the game, also to no avail. The change in the match came not from him, but from Wawrinka.
It was like watching the look of sad fatalism in Sam Stosur's eyes as she resigned herself to an inevitability and converted certain victory into certain loss. You could see a change come over Wawrinka's face and the complexion of the match late in the second set. Djokovic seized his moment. He attacked and won six consecutive games to take the set and and gain a first-up break in the third set.
Djokovic took the third set relatively comfortably and thus had the advantage. But by then, Wawrinka had warmed to the idea that on this night he was the equal of the world number one. A Davis Cup and training partner of Roger Federer, he is not overawed by the idea of truly great players and he attacked Djokovic despite his cramping, tired legs.
Impressively, Wawrinka extinguished his self-doubt and once more began attacking. His game no longer had the blistering certainty it had in the first set and a half, but he was again drawing errors from Djokovic with his punishing backhand and heavy serve. Djokovic was doing his best to recover everything Wawrinka delivered, but even he could not squeeze back Wawrinka's ground strokes.
On the stroke of midnight the Swiss - with the efficiency of a clock - pushed the match into a new day and a fifth set.
But that set was an epic within an epic. It took 104 minutes, 22 games, and three match points, but finally, after a rally befitting the match itself, Djokovic prevailed.