Australian Open win serves a reminder of Novak Djokovic’s foolproof game | Australian Open 2023
As Tommy Paul looked back on the brutal experience of facing Novak Djokovic for the first time in his career at Rod Laver Arena last week, he sighed deeply. Paul had gone into his first Grand Slam semifinal with a plethora of different ideas on how to disrupt his opponent and prevail. He soon found that they amounted to nothing.
Paul wanted to serve and volley, he explained, but Djokovic’s returns peppered the baseline, forcing him back instead. He wanted to mix drop shots into his game, but Djokovic’s incessant depth made it impossible. He had planned a slice but was under enormous pressure on his backhand wing early on. “He didn’t really let me play the game plan that I came up with myself,” he said.
That sense of helplessness as Djokovic prevented opponents from playing tennis as usual was one of the common sentiments shared by everyone after he outplayed Stefanos Tsitsipas to win his 10th Australian Open title on Sunday.
After being demolished in front of his home crowd, Alex de Minaur admitted he “didn’t really know what to do out there”. Tsitsipas, the fourth best player in the world, concluded he could not have done more after losing in straight sets. “I couldn’t have gotten anything more out of today. I did everything possible,” he said.
As with so many tournament victories, this triumph is a special reminder of how complete and foolproof Djokovic’s game is. A lot of top players can’t function without their best shot, but Djokovic has been able to win so much for so long because he has so many built-in contingencies. When a strength fails, he still has so much more in his game than most opponents.
Djokovic’s backhand is one of the best shots in the history of the sport and has earned him many Grand Slams, but in Melbourne it was actually a loss. He struggled with his timing and made far more mistakes than usual. The few lucky moments his opponents got during the tournament mostly came from his favorite shot.
He reacted to his backhand problems by simply dominating with his forehand. Throughout the tournament, he was extremely aggressive on the shot, knocking it free to the end. Against Tsitsipas alone, Djokovic hit 14 forehand winners with just three unforced forehand errors, outplaying Tsitsipas’ own forehand, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the game. It was present at almost every crucial moment and Djokovic saved the set point in set number two with a vicious inside-in forehand winner.
After the match, Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic explained that Djokovic’s hamstring injury forced him to play more aggressive tennis and that the attacking mentality was most reflected in his forehand.
“He stepped up and hit incredible forehands. Really probably the best two weeks of forehand I’ve seen him in his life. I’ve never seen him hit better forehands before. He really wanted it,” he said.
Novak Djokovic stops his car to greet fans after his Australian Open triumph in Melbourne. Photo: Kelly Defina/Getty Images
A second Grand Slam win in seven months for Djokovic after Wimbledon last year further underscores how little there is to debate about the all-time statistical standings.
Djokovic has twice won every Grand Slam tournament and every Masters 1000 event. This week he’s enjoying his 374th week at No. 1, already 64 weeks more than second-placed Roger Federer, and it’s only a matter of time before Djokovic surpasses Steffi Graf’s all-time record of 377 weeks at the top.
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And now he is level with Rafael Nadal in Slams. Together, Djokovic and Nadal have won 16 of the last 19 Grand Slam tournaments, despite their advancing age and the constant hype about youngsters. The opposition may not have been particularly impressive in Melbourne, but Djokovic and Nadal have been so far from the rest because they are so brilliant.
It remains to be seen how long Djokovic can continue like this, but he’s still fully motivated, still moves so fluidly on the pitch and is still relatively healthy even after a week with a hamstring injury. His actual level of tennis is the least of his concerns, more like how long he stays mentally engaged and whether he can lead a balanced life off the court. “I can keep fit physically. Of course 35 is not 25, even if I want to believe it. But I still feel like there’s still time ahead of me. Let’s see how far I can get,” he said.
After some time at home with his family who hasn’t traveled to Melbourne, Djokovic is set to compete in Dubai next month. His unvaccinated status means he is yet to enter the United States for Indian Wells and Miami, but then everything will focus on the clay court season. Carlos Alcaraz will return and Tsitsipas might feel like he has a better chance on his favorite surface, but most importantly Nadal should be back from his hip injury and ready to defend his territory.
“You still have these two guys fighting,” Ivanisevic said, smiling. “This was Novak’s home pitch and now we go next to Rafa’s home pitch in this handball game from 22-22.”