Novak Djokovic won his 10th men’s singles title victory at the Australian Open and also reclaimed the world No. 1 ranking.
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN
Novak Djokovic came to Australia with a mission or, really, a series of them.
To win the championship he had won nine times once more. To win a 22nd Grand Slam men’s singles title and draw even with his rival Rafael Nadal at the top of that list. To remove any doubt anyone might have about whether he remains the world’s dominant player — the most commanding player of the last decade and now this one, too. To show the world that the only way to keep him from winning nearly any tennis tournament is to not let him play.
Check. Check. Check. And check.
A year after Australia deported him over his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Novak Djokovic reclaimed the Grand Slam title he has won more than any other, capturing a record 10th championship at the Australian Open by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) on Sunday in Melbourne.
After one last forehand off Tsitsipas’ racket floated long to end a match that felt lopsided despite the two tiebreakers, Djokovic turned and stared at his family and coaches sitting in his box. He pointed to his head, his heart and then just below his waistband, letting the world in on his team’s code language and telling it that winning Sunday took everything he had.
“It takes a big heart, mental strength and the other thing as well,” he said with a laugh once the night had turned into the early morning.
He wore a jacket emblazoned with a bright number 22 just under the right side of his collarbone and called this triumph “the biggest victory in my life.”
In addition to gaining pole position to surge past the injured Nadal on the career Grand Slam list — and in the greatest-of-all-time debate — Djokovic also reclaimed the top spot in the world rankings, making him, at 35, the second-oldest player to reach that rarefied realm, behind only Roger Federer, who was nearly 37 during his last stint on top of the tennis world. Djokovic turns 36 on May 22. It’s probably a bad idea to bet against his taking that record from Federer, as he has so many others.
The feat is even more noteworthy given how much tennis Djokovic has had to miss in the last year. He can’t play in the United States because of his refusal to get a COVID-19 shot. Unless there is a change in that policy, he will again miss a major tournament in Indian Wells, California, in March, and the hard court swing this summer, which includes the U.S. Open.
He is either stubborn or a man of principle — and more likely both.
Djokovic’s score sheets in this tournament might suggest that these last two weeks were little more than a vacation Down Under, with some tennis thrown in. He dropped only a single set in seven matches. His fourth-round, quarterfinal and semifinal tests were nearly complete wipeouts of opponents.
When Djokovic is on 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 of his service games. First breaks of his opponents’ serves that become a first dagger, and first-set wins for a player who rarely lets anyone creep back into a match.
He does not let opponents catch their breath, smacking returns at their shins, forcing them to hit yet another shot, and then another one, after they think they have won a point. It’s tennis as a form of suffocation. Tommy Paul, the American who was Djokovic’s victim in the semifinal, said when it was over that much of the first set had been a blur. Paul has played tennis his whole life, but this time, the seconds between points, between the moment he hit a ball and the moment he was on the run chasing the next one, have never passed so quickly.
But Djokovic’s reclamation mission in Australia was filled with hazards. Ahead of the tournament, he aggravated his hamstring, forcing him to take the court wearing a thick strapping around the injured area until the final. He hobbled through the first week, playing without the magical movement that is the foundation of his game.
Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, said 97% of players would have pulled out of the tournament.
“He is from outer space,” Ivanisevic said of Djokovic, who became even more aggressive because of his injury, smacking 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, massages and painkillers made the pain and discomfort go away when it mattered most. He heard the noise on social media questioning whether the leg had ever been hurt at all and shot back that no one ever questioned the validity of other players’ injuries — an unsubtle reference to the always banged-up 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 win in the quarterfinals. Serbia and Russia have close political and cultural ties. Tennis crowds outside Serbia almost always arrive with some hostility for Djokovic, and they pull hard for his opponents, who are usually underdogs.
Djokovic dealt with Paul and then dealt with the public, assuring everyone that his father had never meant to show support for 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, for years seen as tennis’s heir apparent, stood in his way.
Maybe Sunday night in Australia, where the large, spirited Greek population has turned Tsitsipas into an adopted son, would be the night, especially with the No. 1 ranking on the line.
Then again, maybe not. Tsitsipas came out without the ease and fluidity that he had played with for nearly two weeks, and he fell behind early. Djokovic barely seemed to break a sweat as he took the first set.
In the second set, though, Tsitsipas’ arm seemed to loosen, the forehands started to bang, and the windmill one-hand backhands started to whip.
This will undoubtedly be the hour that keeps 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 tentative return of Djokovic’s meatball of a second serve when Tsitsipas had set point. The long forehand and the loose backhand — the stroke Djokovic picked on all night that gave him the edge he would not give up in the tiebreaker.
“He’s the greatest that has ever held a tennis racket,” Tsitsipas said of Djokovic as he held his runner-up plate once more.
Sabalenka rallies to win women’s final
In Saturday’s women’s singles final, Aryna Sabalenka, the powerful 24-year-old from Belarus, came from behind to beat Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.