MELBOURNE, Australia – Novak Djokovic came to Australia with a mission, or actually a series of missions.
To win the championship, he had won another nine times. To win a 22nd Grand Slam men’s singles title and level with his rival Rafael Nadal at the top of that list. To remove any doubt as to whether he remains the dominant player in the world, the most dominant player of the last decade and now this one too. To show the world that the only way to stop him from winning almost every tennis tournament is not to let him play.
To verify. To verify. To verify. And check.
A year after Australia deported him for refusing to be vaccinated against Covid-19, Djokovic reclaimed the Grand Slam title, which he has won more than anyone, clinching one at the Australian Open Record 10 championship by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), on Sunday.
After a final forehand from Tsitsipas’ racquet floated long to end a match that felt one-sided despite the two tiebreakers, Djokovic turned and stared at his family and coaches seated in his box. Pointing to his head, his heart and then just below his waistband, he let the world be privy to his team’s code language and told them Sunday’s win cost everything he had.
“It takes a big heart, mental strength and something else,” he said with a laugh after the night had turned to early morning.
Wearing a jacket with a glowing number 22 just below the right side of his collarbone, he called that triumph “the greatest win of my life.”
The Australian Open 2023
The first Grand Slam event of the year takes place in Melbourne from January 16th to 29th.
- Coaching that feels like “cheating”: In-game coaching has always been clandestine, but this year marks the first time the Australian Open will allow players to be coached from the stands.
- Rod Laver likes what he sees: At the age of 84, the man with his name sits in the stadium at the Australian Open on the sidelines.
- India’s Superstar: Sania Mirza, who leaves tennis as a sleeping giant, was nonetheless a pioneer. “I would like to have a quieter life,” she says.
- Backstage: A clique of billionaires, well-funded corporations and star players have waged a high-stakes battle for months to spearhead what they see as a golden opportunity to disrupt the sport.
Djokovic not only claimed pole position to overtake injured star Nadal on the career Grand Slam list – and in the GOAT debate – but also reclaimed first place in the world rankings, giving him 35 years of age making it the second oldest player to make it through this refined empire, behind only Roger Federer, who was almost 37 during his last stint at the top of the tennis world. Djokovic will be 36 on May 22nd. It’s probably a bad idea to bet against him taking that record from Federer since he has so many others.
The feat is all the more remarkable considering how much tennis Djokovic had to miss in the last year. He cannot play in the United States because he refuses to get a Covid-19 vaccination. Unless that policy changes, he will again miss a major tournament in Indian Wells, California, in March and this summer’s hard-court swings, which include the US Open.
He’s either stubborn or a man of principle – and more likely both.
Djokovic’s result lists in this tournament could indicate that these past two weeks have been little more than a holiday with some tennis. He lost just one set in seven games. His tests in the fourth round, quarterfinals, and semifinals were near-complete obliterations of opponents.
When Djokovic is there, as he was in the second week of this tournament, his game is all about firsts. Line-scraping first serves that give him the first point in his service games. First breaks of his opponents’ serves that become an initial dagger and first set wins for a player who rarely lets anyone sneak back into a match.
He doesn’t let opponents catch their breath, hitting them in the shin with the return and forcing them to throw another punch, and then another after they think they’ve won a point. It’s tennis as a form of suffocation. Tommy Paul, the American who lost to Djokovic in the semifinals, said when it was over much of the first set was a blur. Paul has played tennis all his life, but this time the seconds between the points, between the moment he hit a ball and the moment he was on the run to chase the next, were so quick gone like never before.
Andrey Rublev, a Russian with a fearsome forehand and serve, paced the hallway in the minutes before he was called onto the pitch to play him in the quarterfinals.
In the fourth round, Alex de Minaur, playing in front of a hometown crowd ready to fire him into the fight, won just five games. After destroying de Minaur, Djokovic told Serbian press that playing against an Australian in Australia motivated him because the country’s government did to him last year and arrested and deported him for his notoriety and his stance against mandatory vaccinations .
But Djokovic’s recovery mission in Australia was fraught with peril. Before the tournament, he aggravated his Achilles tendon. It forced him to step onto the court with a heavy strapping around the injured area until the finals. He hobbled through the first week, playing without the magic move that is the foundation of his game.
Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, said 97 percent of the players had withdrawn from the tournament.
“He’s from space,” Ivanisevic said of Djokovic, who became even more aggressive because of his injury, clapping his forehand whenever he saw a chance to end a point quickly. “His brain works differently.”
And then, as with so many of his previous injuries, a combination of rest, massage, and painkillers made the aches and pains go away when it most needed it. Hearing the din on social media asking if the leg had ever been injured, he shot back that no one ever questioned the validity of other players’ injuries – an unsubtle reference to the always-battered Nadal.
Then, just as he was hitting top speed, his father Srdjan was caught on video taking a picture with fans outside Rod Laver Arena, some of whom were holding Russian flags, after Djokovic’s quarterfinal victory. Serbia and Russia have close political and cultural ties. The tennis crowds outside of Serbia almost always arrive with some animosity towards Djokovic and they pull hard for his opponents who are usually underdogs.
Djokovic dealt with Paul and then the public, assuring everyone that his father had never intended to support the war in Ukraine, that as someone who grew up in the war-torn Balkans, he knew the horrors of violent conflict and would never support it.
After that, only Tsitsipas stood in his way, who was considered the heir to the throne of tennis for years.
Perhaps Sunday night in Australia, where the large, spirited Greek population has made Tsitsipas an adopted son, would be the night, especially when No. 1 is at stake.
Then again maybe not. Tsitsipas came out without the ease and fluidity he had played with for nearly two weeks, falling behind early. Djokovic barely seemed to break a sweat as he won the first set.
In the second set, however, Tsitsipas’ arm seemed to loosen up, the forehand started thumping and the Windmill’s one-handed backhand started whipping.
This will undoubtedly be the hour that will keep Tsitsipas up at night in the coming weeks. The netted volley that would have given him a chance to break Djokovic’s serve at 4-3. The provisional return of Djokovic’s meatball of a second serve when Tsitsipas had set the point. The long forehand and loose backhand – the shot Djokovic played all night that gave him the advantage he wouldn’t give up in the tie-break.
“He’s the greatest that has ever held a tennis racquet,” Tsitsipas said of Djokovic as he held his second-place finish again.
Djokovic is the game’s best leader, winning about 95 percent of the matches where he wins the first set. He’s only lost a two-set lead once 13 years ago.
They traded breaks of serve in the first two games of the third set and then games of service until another tiebreak. Like the match itself, this one wasn’t nearly as close as the final numbers. Tsitsipas sprayed his shots long and into the net, allowing Djokovic to take a 5-0 lead.
And while Tsitsipas made it close, winning five of the next six points as Djokovic tightened his game and Tsitsipas swung his racquet without losing anything, there was little question how this would end – just when.
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