At the Australian Open this year, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the longest ever grand slam final. As the tennis season draws to a close, that contest continues to stand out from the other major sporting events of 2012.

In sporting parlance, the word great is clichéd. So are the words epic and classic. Their extensive use by sports commentators and fans has left these words on the brink of obsoleteness. However, last Sunday, the trio was given a fresh lease of life as the world witnessed the longest final in Grand Slam history.

These three adjectives are not the only ones that could describe the final. Fantastic, outstanding, whatever we call it; it’s going to be an insufficient attempt at recounting the events of that night in Melbourne. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal did everything that was humanly possible, and also impossible, to win the match. At the end, there was a winner and a lesser winner. So, who lost? Nobody. Was Djokovic the actual winner? Not quite.

The tennis world has stuck strongly to the dictum, ‘Nothing succeeds like success.’ Djokovic has been hailed by the global media while Nadal’s superhuman effort hardly recieved a mention. Any sport is inherently cruel. Even then, tennis is probably the cruelest of them all. A close to six hours vigil was brought to a sudden conclusion when Djokovic slapped a forehand winner, and snap! It was all over. While Djokovic basked in the adulation, Nadal had nothing to show for one of his best performances ever.

It will be interesting to see how Nadal picks himself up after this morale-shattering defeat. We’d be surprised and shocked if this doesn’t strengthen Nadal’s determination even more. We could see more similar contests between Djokovic and Nadal in the future. However, for a tennis fan, another such match could be too much too take. Tennis’s ability to torment us is greater than other sports.

In most of the popular sports, there is an opportunity for catharsis in the guise of a break or a pause. In football, there is a 15-minute break. So is the case with hockey, basketball, etc. The game stops for a certain duration for the audience to recap whatever happened before the stoppage. Tennis, on the other hand, is different. By the time the viewer begins to make sense of the proceedings, the players are ready to play the next point.

The viewer is rarely aware of how emotionally draining the experience is. When a Djokovic hits a winner to finish a match like the Australian Open final, we are seldom prepared for the end. And after, we are left on the tethers of emotional emptiness. On Sunday, we all felt this emptiness as tennis transformed from a sport to an art and finally, to life itself.

In the opening three sets and the first seven games of the fourth, the sport was taken to a higher level by the finalists. They fought like gladiators and simultaneously played tennis of the highest quality. It was life-enhancing, like any other form of art. But then, suddenly, Rafael Nadal found himself on the brink of defeat. He was serving at 0-40, trailing 3-4 in the fourth set, two sets to one down.

Somehow, Nadal burrowed deep to draw upon an unbelievable reserve of character and won five points on the trot to keep himself in the match. It was almost as if he fought death off with his undying will power and determination. Twenty minutes later, Nadal won the set in dramatic circumstances. Later, he broke Djokovic early in the final set. The Serb looked down and out and Nadal should have won it from there.

But then, Djokovic did a Nadal and came back to win the match. The final, with its ups and downs, mirrored life. So did the end. It was cruel, unfair and unjust. It was a lesser art by the end. It was more about endurance, tenacity and self-belief. These are the qualities that help each one of us to be successful. The moment one wilts under the pressure, as Nadal found out, there’s always somebody to pounce on that opportunity. Djokovic was that man on Sunday.

There were two great players on display in the final who played an epic match. It was a classic contest that will be remembered for ages. For once, it’s not hyperbole but the simple truth.