It was steaming hot in Melbourne and David Ferrer looked like he had been staked out in the Rod Laver Arena in blazing sun for several hours.
The problem being, it was a night match and the first hour was not yet up. Playing Novak Djokovic has that effect on people.
Ferrer is usually a sapping endurance test for any player. Long rallies — 32 shots in the first game of the third set — plenty of baseline action, lots of stamina required. Djokovic turned their semi-final meeting into something akin to a first-round loosener.
The opening set passed in 29 minutes 6-2, the second by the same margin, only five minutes longer. Djokovic would mop his face with a towel. Ferrer looked as if he was about to melt.
Vintage: Novak Djokovic was in phenomenal form as he swept aside David Ferrer
He is monstrous, in this form, the world No 1. This was his 20th consecutive victory at the Australian Open, a run stretching back to his quarter-final defeat by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2010. Djokovic was a different player then and tennis a different world.
The year 2010 was when Djokovic changed and the transformation altered his sport. He stopped choking, stopped losing to inferiors. He can be beaten but only by a select band operating at the very peak of their potential. You know the register: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray. They play to their limit or Djokovic triumphs. The rest: forget it.
Ferrer can give just about every player a game on his day but not Djokovic in Australia. With Nadal injured, his countryman is established as the fourth-best player in the world. He might as well be the fifth Beatle for all the impact he is going to make in that role.
It must have been truly humbling for Ferrer, and rather intimidating for Djokovic’s final opponent, Murray or Federer, to witness such a tour de force. So much rides on their semi-final but Djokovic is the king in Melbourne.
Well beaten: Ferrer (right) had no answer as Djokovic moved ominously closer to a third straight title
The last Grand Slam match that he lost to a player who was not part of tennis’s elite was at Wimbledon in 2010, beaten in the semi-final by Tomas Berdych. This is his 10th Slam since then and he has either emerged victorious or been defeated by one of the modern greats. No outsider can lay a glove on him.
Indeed, Murray’s victory in New York last year looked increasingly epic with every ferocious blow landed against Ferrer. How did he stop this man? How did he take him to five sets and win? How did he grind him physically to a standstill?
Djokovic was unleashing shots like a gunslinger in a Quentin Tarantino movie, like Djoko Unchained. There was an air of violence about it, pure and visceral. One almost expected him to rip Ferrer’s body in two on the return.
If there was a better individual performance at this tournament, nobody had seen it. In the final set, 4-0 down, Ferrer took a point on his own serve and received a sympathetic Australian cheer. He went on to win the game and the relief was tangible. No bagel.
At full stretch: Ferrer was brushed aside by Djokovic who will now face Andy Murray or Roger Federer
This wasn’t capitulation, just an irresistible force meeting a highly movable object. Yet no matter where and how Ferrer moved, Djokovic always found another means of getting him scuttling forlornly across court. Forehand pass, pow, backhand pass, bang, drop-shot to the net.
Occasionally, Djokovic puffed out his cheeks as if being kind, trying to show the work was hard. It didn’t look hard, though. Not elite sport hard, anyway.
At the end, Ferrer’s second serve came back like a rocket, he returned it long and the third set was over, 6-1 and 26 minutes. Ferrer couldn’t get off court quick enough. He looked as if he was suffering extreme trauma.
‘I don’t think I can play any better,’ said Djokovic. ‘That was one of the best performances of my career. Even at two sets up and 4-0 up, I didn’t want to give him any points. He’s a very good player, he bounces back very quickly and it was important not to give him that chance. I felt very free in my mind tonight, and hopefully I will stay that way for the final. I’ve got two days to prepare and visualise my game.’
Murray, meanwhile, and Federer — who says he always watches the night matches — have two days to erase the memory of what they saw. A player at the very top of his game; in his physical prime with no quarter given. Djokjovic is the man to beat here, make no mistake.
If Murray is to win his second Slam it will take the form of his life, greater even than his performance at Flushing Meadows, one thinks.