Novak the Great reigns again in Australia

Where did this match rank among Djokovic’s greatest? “Right at the top,” he said, after destroying Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final to move ahead of Pete Sampras on the all-time Grand Slam titles list.

Fifty years after Rod Laver claimed his second Grand Slam — winning all four majors in a calendar year — Djokovic moved closer to his second “Djoker Slam,” four consecutive non-calendar major titles.   -  Reuters

When Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi in the 2002 US Open final for his 14th Grand Slam title, not even a tennis clairvoyant could have predicted that only 17 years later a trio of superstars would surpass his then-seemingly unbreakable record. Even more amazing, living legends Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, all in their 30s, are still racking up majors.

Fifty years after Rod Laver claimed his second Grand Slam — winning all four majors in a calendar year — Djokovic moved closer to his second “Djoker Slam,” four consecutive non-calendar major titles. The splendid Serb first achieved the rare feat in 2015–16. Now, after grabbing Wimbledon and the US Open last year and this Australian Open, he needs to capture the French Open to pull it off again. As they say in the land Down Under to express delight or excitement, “That’s a ripper!”

In tennis parlance elsewhere, one would say that Djokovic is “in the zone” — meaning he was playing sublime tennis. But that jargon is usually reserved for a given match, and only occasionally for a given tournament. Djokovic has played near-perfect tennis for the past seven months, going 43-4, and trouncing Kevin Anderson, Juan Martin del Potro and the great Nadal in the last three major finals.

Nadal appeared a bit tense before the Australian Open final.   -  AFP

 

In the greatest rivalry in men’s modern tennis history — only the Nadal vs Federer comes close to it — Djokovic led 27-25. Nadal had a 9-5 match edge at the majors, though much of that came from his 6-1 advantage on the French Open clay, Nadal’s last win coming way back in 2014.

Did the bookmakers know something the rest of us didn’t when they listed Nadal as the third pick to win the Australian Open — behind Djokovic and Federer — at only 12-to-1 odds? Perhaps they heavily weighted Djokovic’s huge 14-4 domination of Nadal on hard courts since 2011. Or Djokovic’s 13-7 record in their last 20 matches. Or his 6-1 edge when it came to Aussie Open titles. Or Nadal’s lack of match play, not having competed in a tournament since the 2018 US Open.

Even so, media pundits split fairly evenly in their prognostications, with most predicting a close final. That seemed likely because, as ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said, “They’re playing the best tennis of their lives right now.”

Imagine that! Before Federer captured four of his record 20 Grand Slam titles after hitting 30 — and three when he was over 35 — it was rare for 30-somethings to win majors. Perhaps inspired by the longevity of Federer and Serena Williams (with a record 10 major crowns after turning 30!) at the top, Nadal had already won three majors and Djokovic two going into the 2019 Australian Open.

Although 37-year-old Federer was upset by 20-year-old Greek sensation Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Australian Open third round, his earliest major loss in four years, Nadal and Djokovic steamrolled opponent after opponent to reach the final. Along the way, the 32-year-old Spaniard sent an unmistakable message: It’s no more Next Gen. It’s Gen Now.

Twenty-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas upset 37-year-old Roger Federer in the Australian Open third round, his earliest major loss in four years.   -  Getty Images

 

Nadal started giving the kids lessons with a whipping of the Great Australian Hope, 19-year-old Alex de Minaur. A rail-thin 152 pounds, 6’ welterweight, de Minaur was repeatedly overpowered by the 6’1”, 190-pound cruiserweight Nadal and succumbed 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Next up for Nadal was 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe, a ripped, 6’2, 190-pound American who revels in flinging off his shirt and flexing his muscles LeBron James-style after victories. Nadal pummelled him 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Afterwards Tiafoe, chastened and beaten-up, confided, “It was tough. My body was definitely hurting. I’m more or less happy to be done.”

Some thought fast-rising Tsitsipas, a broad-shouldered 6’4” with a serve often exceeding 130mph and a big forehand, would test Nadal in the semifinals. But Nadal relentlessly pounded Tsitsipas’s vulnerable one-handed backhand and crushed yet another Next Gen star 6-2, 6-4, 6-0. The shell-shocked loser said, “I felt kind of empty in my brain… It felt like a different dimension of tennis completely… He makes you play bad. I would call that a talent.”

While Nadal hadn’t dropped a set before the final, Djokovic faced a slightly tougher draw and surrendered two sets. Denis Shapovalov, a 19-year-old Canadian, grabbed a set before the Djoker restored order by shutting out the flashy lefty 6-0 in the fourth set. Daniil Medvedev, a wiry 6’6” Russian with a wicked forehand, took a second set tiebreaker by 9-7 before Djokovic easily won the last two sets.

Djokovic was gathering momentum and saving his best stuff for the later rounds. He was routing the eighth-seeded Kei Nishikori 6-1, 4-1 in the quarterfinals when the injury-plagued Japanese retired due to a quadriceps injury. Although 28th seed Lucas Pouille had scored mild upsets over 11th seed Borna Coric and 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic, he lacked a huge weapon to threaten Djokovic. Lacking aggressiveness, Pouille won only 26 per cent of his second service points (vs 87 per cent for Djokovic) and just 15 per cent of his receiving points (vs 47 per cent for Djokovic) and was massacred 6-0, 6-2, 6-2. As Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova said, “Playing it safe isn’t going to beat the great ones on the big stage.”

Expectations were running high that the men’s final featuring the two titans would be a “bonzer” — Aussie slang for something really excellent. “The way Nadal and Djokovic looked in the semis, the final should be absolutely mouth-watering,” gushed McEnroe.

Unfortunately, anyone expecting a repeat of their epic duels in the 2012 Australian Open final and the 2018 Wimbledon semifinals was sorely disappointed. This final was forgettable except for the extraordinarily high level of tennis Djokovic displayed.

Just as he had before the 2018 US Open final, Djokovic looked extremely calm, while Nadal appeared a bit tense. The slender 6’2” Serb won the toss and elected to serve. He swatted a forehand winner to open the match and proceeded to win 12 of the first 13 points. The crowd roared when Nadal fired a forehand winner on the seventh point. But it wasn’t nearly enough as Djokovic broke his serve and raced to a 3-0 lead. Nadal had previously held serve 66 straight times. “This is evidence of what nerves do to you,” pointed out ESPN analyst John McEnroe.

The 6-3 first set was more lopsided than the score indicated. Djokovic had a break point in the fourth game and wasted a chance to get a break point in the sixth game when he toyed with Nadal by drop-shotting and then lobbing, rather than hitting a routine passing shot. Down 5-2, 30-love, Nadal was so discombobulated that he actually whiffed on a forehand when his racket hit his knee.

Beside his superiority on return games in the first set, Djokovic won a near-perfect 20 of 21 points on his own serve. He further tightened the pressure on Nadal by executing ground strokes from inside the baseline an amazing 40 per cent of the time, compared to 22 per cent in previous rounds.

“Things started so quick,” Nadal recalled afterwards. “He was pushing me to every ball. He played so well. He hit so long [deep]. His return was fantastic. He was super quick.”

Not only is Djokovic the best serve returner in tennis history, but he’s serving more effectively than ever, hitting the corners on first serves and seldom hitting weak second serves or double-faulting. During both short and long rallies, he hits consistently deeper and more accurately than anyone, and his speed, agility, and flexibility create a virtually impregnable defence. Paul Annacone, who coached Sampras and Federer, said, “Djokovic is the best offensive defender who ever played the game.” All-time great Navratilova metaphorically says, “He’s a wall that moves.”

Normally, Nadal’s viciously topspin lefty forehand and wide-swerving serve in the ad court menace opponents. But they play right into Djokovic strength: a super-solid and powerful two-handed backhand. The stunning rout continued in the 6-2 second set as Djokovic easily broke serve in the fifth and seventh games at 15 and mercilessly finished the set with three straight aces. “I’ve never seen anything like this from Novak,” said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Agassi.

Nadal ranks, along with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, as the ultimate fighter, but Djokovic was an accelerating, unstoppable train. And one that rarely crashed, as proved by a spectacular 190-1 career record after winning the first two sets at a major.

In the third set, Nadal seemed resigned to defeat and uncharacteristically didn’t even make an effort to chase some tough Djokovic shots. Down 3-2 and a service break, Nadal looked up at his player box and shook his head, as if to say he just had no answers. It just wasn’t his day as he hit a bad unforced backhand error in the net on his only break point chance. A pained expression covered his face. Soon after, Djokovic took his archrival out of his misery. The second service break of the set completed a ruthlessly efficient 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 triumph.

The extroverted Serb loves to celebrate his championships, and he gave the Rod Laver Arena spectators a double treat after this especially meaningful title. The intense Djoker first landed on his haunches and pumped his arms and clenched fists to the sky while roaring in joy. Then the smiling Djoker connected with the appreciative fans with his trademark uplifting gesture, once to each side of the stadium. (We can thank Agassi for pioneering post-victory celebratory gestures to the crowd.)

Djokovic’s tour de force gave him a seventh Australian singles title, eclipsing the all-time record he had shared Federer and 1960s star Roy Emerson. More important, his 15th major title narrowed the gap between him and Nadal, second all time with 17 majors and record-holder Federer with 20.

Nadal, who had never before lost a major final in straight sets, was typically gracious in defeat. “It was unbelievable the way that he played, no doubt about that,” he said. “I didn’t suffer much during both weeks. But, five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. I don’t have it yet, to compete at this super-high level. It would have been difficult to beat him even if I was at 100 per cent. When a player does almost everything better than you, you can’t complain.”

More accurately, Djokovic did everything much better. He belted 34 winners and committed just nine unforced errors (vs 21 and 28 for Nadal), won 80 per cent of his first-serve points (vs 51 per cent for Nadal), 42 per cent of his receiving points (vs 19 per cent for Nadal), a sensational 89 per cent of his 18 net points (vs 50 per cent for Nadal), 63 per cent of his break points (vs 0 per cent for Nadal), and a huge 89-53 advantage in total points.

Where did this match rank among Djokovic’s greatest? “Right at the top,” Djokovic said. “Under the circumstances, playing against Nadal in such an important match, it’s amazing. Back to back in the semifinal and final, I made 14 unforced errors in total in two matches. It’s quite pleasantly surprising to myself, as well, even though I always believe and visualise that I can play this way. At this level, under the circumstances, it was truly a perfect match.”

Twenty-one-year-old Frances Tiafoe, a ripped, 6’2, 190-pound American who revels in flinging off his shirt and flexing his muscles LeBron James-style after victories, was pummelled by Nadal in the quarterfinals.   -  Getty Images

 

Djokovic will likely need another perfect match at the French Open to dethrone 11-time and defending champion Nadal and pull off another “Djoker Slam.” With the soundest strokes, tremendous momentum and a Tour-leading seven career wins over Nadal on clay, his chances may be better than ever. A victory at Roland Garros title would give Djokovic at least two titles at every major — a feat no man has achieved in the Open Era — and put him only one behind Nadal in the Grand Slam race with 16. Ultimately, though, he has Roger’s record in mind.

“I am aware that making history in the sport that I truly love is something special,” Djokovic said. “Of course, it motivates me. Playing Grand Slams and the biggest ATP events is my utmost priority in this season and in seasons to come. How many seasons are to come? I don’t know. I’m not trying to think too much in advance.

“I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have mentally, physically and emotionally, so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record. It’s still far off.”

Less far off than Djokovic thinks, according to Annacone. “I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t win a couple of more majors this year,” he predicted.