Melbourne Park, 30 January 2012 | AAP

All-conquering world No.1 Novak Djokovic is eyeing sporting immortality after denying Rafael Nadal once again to dramatically defend his Australian Open crown at Melbourne Park.

Serbia’s tennis super-Novak outlasted Nadal 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7(5) 7-5 in the longest men’s Grand Slam final in history – a brutal five-hour, 53-minute encounter that started on Sunday night and finished at 1:37 am on Monday morning.

The gripping contest eclipsed Mats Wilander’s four-hour, 54-minute win over Ivan Lendl in the 1988 US Open final.

It was also the longest match in Australian Open history, surpassing Nadal’s five-hour, 14-minute semifinal win in 2009 over countryman Fernando Verdasco and left both combatants almost out on their feet at Rod Laver Arena.

Djokovic’s epic triumph from a service break down in the fifth and deciding set placed the 24-year-old alongside his vanquished Spanish foe and fellow all-time greats Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Rod Laver as only the fifth man in the 45-year open era to win three consecutive majors.

Djokovic will now head to the French Open in May bidding to join the legendary Laver in an exclusive club of just two players to have held all four Grand Slam men’s singles trophies simultaneously.

And after thwarting Nadal for a seventh straight time in nine phenomenal months, Djokovic will arrive at Roland Garros also striving to become the first man since Donald Budge in 1937-38 to complete a non-calendar-year Grand Slam sweep.

For Nadal, the misery continues with Djokovic maintaining a potent mental edge over the Spaniard in much the same way as Nadal seemingly lives rent-free inside Federer’s head.

Nadal could see the finish line when he led the Serb 4-2 in a fifth set full of twists and turns.

But the Spaniard dropped serve twice as Djokovic rallied to win five of the last six games to take the match.

Nadal had been hoping to climb to equal fourth place alongside Laver and Bjorn Borg on the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard with an 11th career major, but instead departed Melbourne Park with a somewhat dubious, if undeserving, place in history.

The 25-year-old Majorcan is now the only man in the Open era to lose three successive Grand Slam finals after his latest disappointment followed four-set defeats to Djokovic at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.

But while Djokovic converted two-sets-to-love leads in London and New York, he had to fight tooth and nail to win the 30th instalment of their enthralling series.

Apart from the nigh-indestructible Nadal, Djokovic had to overcome an untimely nine-minute rain delay to close the roof at Rod Laver Arena and then climb off the canvas in the fifth.

Nadal had just played a miraculous game to hold serve from love-40 for 4-4 in the fourth set when the roof was shut, at the Spaniard’s behest, after four hours of riveting action.

But when play resumed, the Serb held his serve and nerve to go up 5-4 before the set was decided in a tense tiebreaker.

Djokovic stood on the brink of victory at 5-3, only to commit two unforced errors and helplessly watch Nadal bring up set point with a booming unreturnable serve.

Djokovic sent the capacity crowd into a frenzy when he pulled a forehand wide to ensure a fifth and deciding set.

Re-energised after drawing level, Nadal seized the advantage in the fifth set with a break to go 4-2 up, but was unable to consolidate as Djokovic – against all odds – roared back.

Showing no signs of the fatigue and breathing problems he suffered in his near-five-hour, five-set semi-final win over Andy Murray on Friday night, Djokovic continued to club winners from all parts of the court.

When he finally prevailed, the Serb fell on his back in jubilation before ripping his shirt off to celebrate his third Open crown to go with his 2008 and 2011 titles.

Djokovic’s fifth career major elevated him above the likes of Jim Courier, Guillermo Vilas and Australia’s 1950s legend Lew Hoad.

Showing great sportsmanship and humour despite flogging themselves to near exhaustion, both players quipped “good morning” to the crowd at the 2am presentation.

“Rafa, you are one of the best players ever. You are one of the most respected players on tour,” Djokovic said.

“We made history tonight. Unfortunately, there couldn’t be two winners tonight.”

Nadal was gracious in gut-wrenching defeat.

“Congratulations to Novak and his team; they deserve it. They are something fantastic,” the world No.2 said.

“I will never, ever will forget this match. Even if I lost, it was very, very special to me.”

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