“He’s the greatest that’s ever held a tennis racquet.”
— Stefanos Tsitsipas, after losing to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final
Tears of ecstasy, relief, and gratitude flowed from Novak Djokovic in the most memorable victory celebration of a Grand Slam title in history. Climbing into his player’s box, Djokovic repeatedly hugged his family and team… and then an iconic moment that eclipsed even his most spectacular shots. He fell into their comforting arms and lay there weeping.
A kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions must have swirled in his collective memory while he cried. He could have recalled sprinting to practice sessions through Belgrade streets as a boy to avoid NATO bombs during the 1990s, winning his first major title here 15 years ago, misadventures like his default from the 2020 U.S. Open for inadvertently hitting a lineswoman with a ball, and his humiliating deportation before the 2022 Australian Open for refusing to be vaccinated for Covid. And during the past few weeks, the heartwarming welcome spectators gave him in Adelaide but also the mixed reception at the Aussie Open where hecklers tried to distract him during matches.
“I teared up because it felt like a huge burden on my back. It was a huge release as well,” Djokovic said after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. “This has been one of the most challenging tournaments I have ever played, considering what happened last year. There is a reason why I’ve played my best tennis in Australia. I try to pinch myself and live through these moments. This is probably the biggest victory of my life, considering the circumstances.”
Those “circumstances” were worsened by a painful left hamstring that nearly prevented Djokovic from even playing the tournament he’d won a record nine times. Goran Ivanisevic, his coach, said an MRI scan showed it was so serious that “97 percent of players” would have withdrawn, but “He is from outer space.”
His otherworldly performances during the fortnight in Melbourne give proof to that. With the loss of only one set, Djokovic not only captured his record-extending 10th Australian Open title but also equalled arch-rival Rafael Nadal with 22 career Grand Slam crowns. As a bonus, he regained the No. 1 ranking. Defying age as remarkably as Nadal and Roger Federer, who retired last year, the superbly fit and mentally tough Serb is now playing better than ever at 35, winning five of the last seven majors he’s contested.
Yes, Djokovic has often talked about how much he’s motivated by making tennis history and becoming the GOAT. But unlike Nadal and Federer, both more popular, he’s faced far more adversity — a challenge that also fuels his ambition.
“I don’t think anyone else could cope with the load that’s been on Djokovic,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier on the Tennis Podcast. “It somehow seems to make him better…. Adversity stokes his fire…. He’s always operated on that outsider vibe. He’s always been clamouring to be the insider…. It’s a product of his childhood and growing up in a war-torn nation where you’re used to having adversity around you.”
There wasn’t much on-court adversity for Djokovic this tournament. With Carlos Alcaraz, the U.S. Open champion and No. 1, absent due to injury, Djokovic was a heavy 4-7 betting favourite. A good draw helped, as did the defeats of talented young contenders 2nd-seeded Casper Ruud, 6th-seeded Felix Auger Aliassime, 8th-seeded Taylor Fritz, and 9th-seeded Holger Rune.
Ruud enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2022, making the final at the French and U.S. Opens. The 24-year-old Norwegian could have grabbed the No. 1 ranking had he won the Aussie Open but instead flopped in the second round. Against Jenson Brooksby, an American counterpuncher, Ruud foolishly engaged in repeated backhand crosscourt rallies rather than capitalising on his explosive forehand. Equally mystifying — considering in-match coaching is allowed now — was the 14-minute break he took after he won the third-set tiebreaker. He had the momentum, while Brooksby was distraught after squandering three match points and wearing down physically. Ruud has a lot to learn from this avoidable 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-2 defeat.
Auger-Aliassime won four titles last year but continues to disappoint at the majors. In Melbourne, Jiri Lehecka, a 23-year-old Czech, used his relentless power to upset FAA 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3) in the fourth round. All-time great Martina Navratilova called the 71st-ranked Lehecka, who also knocked out 11th-seeded Cam Norrie in five sets, “the total package.” Fritz fizzled for his second straight major, losing in five sets to Alexei Popyrin, a big-serving Australian wild card ranked No. 113.
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Rune, the 19-year-old Danish sensation who upset Djokovic, Alcaraz, Auger-Aliassime, Andrey Rublev, and Hubert Hurkacz, to seize the Paris Masters last November, fared better. He made the fourth round where he lost the tournament’s most exciting contest. Rune had three match points against Rublev, serving at 5-3 in the fifth set and two more in the tiebreaker. Rune lost them all, and then in a cruel twist, Rublev took the tiebreaker on a lucky net cord when his backhand serve return trickled over the net for a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6. 7-6 (9) triumph. “It’s not like a rollercoaster, it’s like they put a gun to your head,” a relieved Rublev said afterwards. “A rollercoaster is easier. “In my life, I was never able to win matches like this.”
In the quarterfinals, Djokovic ended Rublev’s exhilarating run, thrashing him 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. “To get better, Rublev needs more versatility,” said Australian TV analyst and former Davis Cupper John Fitzgerald. “He hits the same ball over and over. He hits it very well, but what if it comes back? But to get more versatile, you have to practice more shots, like the high volley he missed.”
What’s it like for a 100-1 longshot in his first Grand Slam semifinal to play Djokovic? Tommy Paul, the first American man to reach an Australian Open singles semifinal since Andy Roddick in 2009, found out during the 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 drubbing. Afterwards, Paul said, “He didn’t let me execute any game plan I wanted to do.” Djokovic’s improved forehand had much to do with that as it’s averaged 81 mph this season, five mph faster than a year ago, and only 12% of his forehands landed in the middle third (laterally) of the court.
Paul derailed the rampaging Ben Shelton 7-6 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 in a surprise, all-American quarterfinal. A year ago, the 20-year-old Shelton ranked No. 548 and played No. 3 on the University of Florida team coached by his father Bryan, a former world-class player. Ben, whose exuberance and competitiveness made him a fan favourite in his first trip outside the U.S., blasted the tournament’s fastest serve, 142 mph (228 k/ph). “He has superstar written all over him,” raved ESPN analyst John McEnroe.
Shelton was one of eight American men to reach the Australian Open third round, the most to advance that far since 1996. The others were Mackenzie McDonald, who upset the injured Nadal, Sebastian Korda, who stunned No. 7 but fading Daniil Medvedev in three sets, Michael Mmoh, who ousted the No. 12 Alexander Zverev, J.J. Wolf, a straight-sets winner over No. 23 Diego Schwartzman, Frances Tiafoe, Brooksby, and Paul.
Tsitsipas, a three-time semifinalist in Melbourne, ingratiated himself with Australians, promising he’d build a school there if he won the tournament. During press conferences, he spiced his answers with Aussie slang like “Yeah, crikey, that was a ripsnorter, mate” and “Fair crack of the whip, mate.”
With the artistry of an Athenian and the warrior competitiveness of a Spartan, Tsitsipas emerged as a potential star when he upset Federer at the 2019 Australian Open. Since then, he has improved the power and precision of his serve, but his one-handed backhand remained the weak link that prevented him from winning a major, though he extended Djokovic to five sets in the 2021 Roland Garros final.
Aside from a five-set victory over 15th-seeded Jannik Sinner, Tsitsipas advanced routinely to the semifinals. There he faced Karen Khachanov, who had the dubious distinction of losing 22 consecutive matches against top-10 players, including five straight at the majors. The 6’5” Russian kept both streaks intact, losing 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3. Aside from tightening up when it mattered most in the third-set tiebreaker, Stefanos excelled, striking 66 winners against just 34 unforced errors. The large contingent of boisterous Greek Australians raised blue and white flags, and a girl displayed a sign reading “The Greek God of Tennis.” Indeed, with his handsome, chiselled face, long-flowing hair, and broad shoulders, the 6’4” Tsitsipas looked the part.
A crowd as large and noisy as the 15,000 spectators inside Rod Laver Arena watched the final on the grounds outside. Heavily favoured Djokovic had not only beaten Tsitsipas the last nine times, but he also had prevailed in nine of his last 11 Grand Slam finals. “Stefanos has to be more aggressive with his backhand,” said ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. “He has to play the perfect match to be in the match late.” Note P-Mac didn’t say “to win the match.”
Tsitsipas survived two break points in the opening game. But when Djokovic broke serve for a 3-1 lead, John McEnroe said, “You get the feeling Novak will never miss. It’s amazing.”
The Serb took the uneventful first set 6-3. The crowd became increasingly loud in the second set as Serbian shouts of “Nole! Nole! vied with Greek chants of “Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas just as fiercely as their heroes competed.
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In the second set Tsitsipas provided his partisans with hope when he arrived at set point, with Djokovic serving at 4-5, 30-40. Novak, as he so often does on critical points, ended the 15-shot exchange with a forehand winner. Fortune favours the brave, and Tsitsipas wasn’t. “Tsitsipas never went for a big shot and hoped Djokovic would miss,” said John McEnroe. “Don’t bank on that.”
On to the tiebreaker where superior serving and returning serve helped Djokovic prevail 7-4. His biggest concern was a nasty heckler who disturbed him as he was about to serve at 5-4. He turned around to glare at the troublemaker and then won two more points, the last coming on Tsitsipas’s timid forehand slice serve return into the net.
Djokovic still looked agitated after the 10-minute break. Playing more aggressively, the Greek forced three backhand errors to break serve for 1-0 lead in the third set. Djokovic broke right back with a backhand approach winner and a super forehand angle to tie it 1-all. Both held serve the rest of the set to force another tiebreaker.
Once again, Tsitsipas went into his shell and played passively as the more solid and offensive Djokovic raced to a 5-0 lead. After Tsitsipas won three straight points, Novak responded with a forehand winner for 6-3. On the third championship point, Djokovic stroked a precise crosscourt forehand, and Tsitsipas’s forehand sailed far beyond the baseline.
Game, set, and championship 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) for Djokovic.
The Serb proudly pointed towards his head, his heart, and his testicles to emphasise those tennis attributes. Then soaking in the applause, he raised his arms, motioning to get even more. Spectators continued to chant “Nole! Nole!” as he walked toward his player’s box.
When he returned to the court after his emotion-drenched two minutes with his mother, brother, coach, and the rest of his team, Djokovic wept some more on his chair with his face hidden behind a towel.
For the awards ceremony, Djokovic wore a white jacket with “22” emblazoned on it, referring to his record-tying 22 major titles. In an eloquent, inspiring speech to the crowd, he congratulated Tsitsipas and then recalled their tennis journeys starting in Serbia and Greece.
“We are relatively two small countries who don’t really have a tennis tradition, we didn’t really have too many players to look up to, players that have reached these heights,” Djokovic said. “I think the message for any young tennis player around the world who is watching this now and dreaming to be here where we are: Dream big. Dare to dream, because anything is possible. Don’t let anyone take away the dream. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. I actually think the more disadvantaged childhood you have, the more challenges you have, the stronger you become. Stefanos and I are proof of that.”
His 10th Grand Slam title Down Under also was his 10th major after he turned 30. For Djokovic anyway, 35 is the new 25. “It’s hard for me to think of Djokovic not being No. 1 at any point this year,” predicted Patrick McEnroe. With fewer points to defend because Djokovic missed two majors and several Masters 1000 events last year, McEnroe is likely right, especially if the U.S. Open allows him to play.
A Djokovic showdown with Nadal, the King of Clay, at the French Open, and teen phenom Alcaraz on any surface should highlight the tantalising season.
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In his press conference, Novak said, “I still have lots of motivation. Let’s see how far it takes me. I really don’t want to stop here. I feel great about my tennis. I know that when I’m feeling good physically, mentally present, I have a chance to win any Slam against anybody. I like my chances going forward.”
Dojokovic’s quest for GOAT recognition is hotter than ever. Another major would also equal Serena Williams’s 23 major titles and threaten Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.
Records are made to be broken. Who or what can stop Djokovic?
Sabalenka outslugs and outlasts Rybakina for first Grand Slam title
“ Champions are not born. They are made. They emerge from a long, hard school of defeat, discouragement, and mediocrity, but they are endowed with a force that transcends discouragement and cries ‘I will succeed.’”
— Bill Tilden, from his 1920 book, The Art of Lawn Tennis
“ Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”
— James Michener, American author
Who needs a superstar, or even a current No. 1, in a Grand Slam final when you have two dynamic, rising stars? And who needs contrasting playing styles when you have two explosive hitters playing lights-out tennis?
Not the billion TV viewers that Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina enthralled for nearly three hours in the Australian Open final. And certainly not the “Original Nine” pioneers of women’s tennis 50 years ago — seven watched from the front row — surely revelling in how far women’s tennis had come since they famously signed $1 contracts to turn pro.
Just as these trailblazers boldly defied the odds to create the first women’s pro tour, a pair of six-footers from countries with little tennis tradition boldly pounded shots from every spot on the court with precision and poise. Sabalenka, from Belarus, ignited the fireworks when she whacked two aces to take the opening game. Rybakina, from Kazakhstan, retaliated with three aces of her own to make it 1-all. “I feel like I’m watching a men’s match,” said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez.
While both finalists deploy uncompromising, first-strike tennis, their personalities differ as much as fire and ice. Animated at her best, overwrought at her worst, 24-year-old Sabalenka had suffered three heartbreaking semifinal losses at Slam events, all 6-4 in the deciding set. The most distressing setback was when she was heavily favoured against 5’4” Leylah Fernandez at the 2021 U.S. Open. Recalling these three setbacks, Sabalenka said, “I was, like, overdoing things. I was rushing a lot. I was nervous a lot. Screaming, doing all this stuff.”
Over-reacting when she lost big points, the high-strung Sabalenka worked with a psychologist, as so many other women pros do. Plagued by double faults, averaging a woeful 15.8 a match last year, she even resorted to serving underhand on occasion. “I thought it was mental, but it wasn’t,” she said after defeating No. 12 Belinda Bencic 7-5, 6-2 in the Australian Open fourth round. “At the end of the season when I started working with a biomechanics guy, he helped me a lot.”
So Sabalenka fired the psychologist and hired biomechanics expert Gavin MacMillan last August. Studying videos of her serve, MacMillan found and helped her correct three flaws — her elbow dropped too much, she tossed the ball too high and too far to the right, and she dropped her head too soon. With a streamlined, smoother service motion, she averaged just 4.7 double faults a match this season, going into the AO final.
This massive serving improvement plus speedier movement — she did wind sprints before matches in Adelaide — paid huge dividends for the dedicated Belarusian. She left no stone unturned, even adding a statistician to her team to provide her with match data.
Sabalenka also remained loyal to her coach. Anton Dubrov, who had guided her to the top 10, offered to resign 11 months ago when her game and results were at a low ebb. In an interview with Australia’s Nine Network, Sabalenka recalled, “There were moments last year when he said, ‘I think I’m done, and I think I cannot give you something else, and you have to find someone else.’ And I said: ‘No, you’re not right. It’s not about you. We just have to work through these tough moments, and we’ll come back stronger.’”
Even in the worst of times, no one had ever questioned her courage and competitiveness. Dubbed “The Warrior Princess” and sporting a tiger tattoo on her left forearm, Sabalenka notched 10 wins last year after losing the opening set. Sound technique breeds confidence and calmness. Finishing 2022 with a bang at the WTA Finals, she defeated Iga Swiatek, Ons Jabeur, and Jessica Pegula to join Steffi Graf and Serena and Venus Williams as the only women ever to beat the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 at the same tournament.
Sabalenka’s semifinal foe at the Australian Open was an overlooked 30-year-old Pole. Magda Linette emerged from the weakest quarter of the draw to make her first semifinal in her 30th Grand Slam event. The slightly built, 5’7” giant-slayer upset four seeds, the most impressive win being over an erratic, No. 4 Caroline Garcia, 7-6 (3), 6-4. Linette also disposed of No. 16 Anett Kontaveit 3-6, 6-3, 6-4; No. 19 Ekaterina Alexandrova, a Russian playing without a flag beside her name, 6-3, 6-4; and No. 30 and two-time major runner-up Karolina Pliskova, 6-3, 7-5. Linette credited her late-career success to a positive attitude. “All through my life, I’ve been taking mistakes and losses very personally, so I had to disconnect those two things,” she said. “It was really difficult because I felt a lot of times that the misses, the mistakes, were defining me.”
A huge underdog in the semifinals, Linette, a smart counter-puncher who absorbs the pace of opponents well, handled Sabalenka’s brute power for nearly a set. Then the Belarusian reeled off the first six points of the tiebreaker and romped to a 7-6 (1), 6-2 victory.
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The new Sabalenka steamrolled 10 straight opponents without dropping a set to start 2023, six at the Aussie Open. But could she keep her momentum and nerves in the biggest match of her life?
Rybakina is renowned for her stoical demeanour, reminiscent of all-time great Chris Evert, who was nicknamed “The Ice Maiden.” When the Kazakh won championship point at Wimbledon last July, she had the most muted celebration in history, not even cracking a smile. On her poker face, Rybakina said, “Most players are trying to learn how to be calm. I already know, and sometimes I’m trying to show more.” At Melbourne, she did but not much more.
The 23-year-old, Russian-born Kazakh is no shrinking violet, though. She suffered the most when the Women’s Tennis Association stripped all players of their Wimbledon ranking points to retaliate against Wimbledon’s ban of Russians and Belarusians because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Losing 2,000 points unfairly denied Rybakina a top-10 ranking. And insult was added to injury in Melbourne — an undeserved No. 22 seeding — when she, the reigning Wimbledon queen, was relegated to remote Court 13 for her opening round match. The bookies also disrespected Rybakina, giving her slim 28-1 odds to win her second major.
Rather than getting mad, Rybakina seemed even more determined to get even by capturing the tournament. She memorably said, “It does not matter so much what court you start the tournament on as it does what court you finish the tournament on.”
Confronted with a much tougher draw than Sabalenka, Rybakina eliminated 2022 AO finalist Danielle Collins 6-2, 5-7, 6-2. Then she overpowered Swiatek, the three-time major champion who last year won 37 straight matches, 6-4, 6-4 in the fourth round. “If I perform like I did this week, and if it’s going to be consistent, then for sure I will say that I can be number one. I can beat anyone,” said Rybakina, brimming with confidence.
Conversely, the deflated Swiatek reassessed her approach to tournaments. “I maybe wanted it a little bit too hard,” she admitted. “So I’m going to try to chill out a little bit more. I felt the pressure, and I felt that ‘I don’t want to lose’ instead of ‘I want to win.’”
Rybakina then knocked out 17th seed Jelena Ostapenko, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals after the 2017 French Open champion ousted 7th-seeded Coco Gauff 7-5, 6-3.
The 18-year-old Gauff still has much to learn tactically. Instead of engaging in powerful groundstroke exchanges, “Coco should have changed the pace with some variety, some slices, topspin, and drop shot,” as ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs advised. With in-match coaching allowed for the first time, it’s surprising her player’s box didn’t tell her to change her losing game.
The semifinals pitted light heavyweight Victoria Azarenka, the 2012-2013 Aussie champion, against heavyweight Rybakina. Just like in the final, the Kazakh pounded three aces in her first service game, setting the tone for a 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory. The stats told the story. Rybakina hammered 30 winners, including nine aces. Vika, now 33, competed valiantly but was outgunned, winning just 22% of her second-serve points. “Rybakina reminds me of [former No. 1] Lindsay Davenport because she attacks with the serve and return of serve so you’re always under pressure,” said Mary Joe Fernandez.
Many tennis experts rated Sabalenka a slight favourite over Rybakina for two reasons: 1) her 3-0 head-to-head record, though all their matches went three sets and the last one came at the 2021 Wimbledon; and 2) Sabalenka’s perfect 10-0 record this year. Even so, a solid case could be made for Rybakina because she already competed in a Grand Slam final and won it decisively. In addition, a stunning 53% of her first serves were not returned. “It’s all about serves and nerves,” predicted ESPN analyst and former No. 4 Brad Gilbert.
Nerves proved costly for Sabalenka in the first set, and her old bugaboo — double faults — haunted her again. Two came at 4-all, the second on game point for a service break. The more relaxed Rybakina served out the next game at love to grab the opening set, 6-4.
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The Melbourne crowd applauded winners with equal fervour, enjoying the high-velocity shot-making. If past results were any guide, Rybakina had more reason for optimism. In her young career, she was 25-2 at majors after winning the first set, while Sabalenka was 1-8 in tournament finals after losing the first set.
With her mom, dad, and sister watching — her parents had missed her Wimbledon final — Rybakina’s relentless pressure forced Sabalenka to raise her game in the second set. She did exactly that, staving off two break points in the opening game and then breaking the Kazakh’s serve to take a 3-1 lead. Sabalenka saved a break point with a backhand winner, screamed in delight, and then belted an ace to hold serve for 4-1. Her mojo back, Sabalenka was pumping her fist, a la Jimmy Connors and Rafael Nadal.
Now Rybakina was forced on the back foot, giving ground behind the baseline in ferocious groundstroke exchanges. Rybakina managed to survive three break points in the sixth game and two more in the eighth game, but the tide had turned. Sabalenka finished the convincing 6-3 set with two aces.
Rennae Stubbs, a former doubles star and now an ESPN analyst, summed up the final so far: “Some of the biggest, if not THE biggest, hitting I’ve ever seen in women’s tennis.”
When Rybakina smacked four groundstroke winners, while escaping a break point in a 12-point game, to edge ahead 3-2, both players had won 83 points. “Something has to give at some point in this set,” said ESPN’s Fernandez.
The parity ended in the seventh game. Sabalenka, smelling her first Grand Slam title was not far away, pummelled her forehands, averaging an unheard of 87 mph (10 mph faster than in the previous 25 games, and her backhand at 83 mph, (9 mph more). Something finally did give. On her fourth break point, Sabalenka crushed a bounce overhead winner for a 4-3 lead.
As the Belarusian would later say she told herself, “Nobody tells you it’s going to be easy. You just have to work for it, work for it till the last point.” We can thank our sport’s brilliant scoring system for that, making tennis a sport of will as much as skill.
It wasn’t easy, as Rybakina also battled intensely for 2023’s first major title. Sabalenka needed 10 points, concluding with a 108-mph ace to hold serve for 5-3. On the changeover before she served for the match at 5-4, she took deep breaths to relax. The crowd roared in anticipation of yet another thrilling game.
Spectators got even more drama than they wished. A Sabalenka ace gave her a championship point only to squander it with a double fault. After a line-clipping forehand winner to get another championship point, Sabalenka lost two points to suddenly face break point. She escaped with a point-winning 119-mph serve. Rybakina’s resistance finally weakened. An unforced forehand resulted in yet another championship point, which Sabalenka didn’t convert. But she earned a fourth championship point with a forehand winner. When Rybakina’s forehand landed a few inches beyond the baseline, Sabalenka fell on her back to celebrate her 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 career-changing triumph.
Sabalenka cried tears of joy, covering her face. She then embraced the disappointed loser and raced to her player’s box where she hugged her joyful team.
During the awards presentation, Sabalenka, who wound up with 51 winners against only 28 unforced errors, lavished praise on her “crazy team,” especially coach Dubrov and fitness trainer Jason Stacy. “We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year. We worked so hard and you guys deserve this trophy,” said the gracious Sabalenka. “It’s more about you than it’s about me.”
Echoing Bill Tilden’s aphorism of more than 100 years ago, Sabalenka said, “I really needed those tough losses to kind of understand myself a little bit better. It was like a preparation for me. I actually feel happy that I lost those matches, so right now I can be a different player and just a different Aryna, you know?”
The different Sabalenka and the established Rybakina have the weapons and the determination to win several more majors and even dominate the women’s game.