Novak Djokovic shows pretenders he is not ready to hand over crown yet

The world No 1’s dismantling of Daniil Medvedev showed that the next generation are still trailing old guard on biggest stages

Novak Djokovic poses with the Australian Open trophy as beaten finalist Daniil Medvedev watches on.
Novak Djokovic poses with the Australian Open trophy as beaten finalist Daniil Medvedev watches on. Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images
Novak Djokovic poses with the Australian Open trophy as beaten finalist Daniil Medvedev watches on. Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images
Jonathan Howcroft
at Melbourne Park

Last modified on Mon 22 Feb 2021 00.12 EST

While Novak Djokovic embraced Goran Ivanišević in the players’ box after celebrating his ninth Australian Open, Daniil Medvedev sat alone in his chair with a thousand-yard stare.

As major tournaments come and go, prophecies of the end of an era become louder and more convincing, yet 10 of the last 11 times they have concluded with Djokovic or Rafael Nadal standing on top of the podium. “We’re talking about some cyborgs of tennis, in a good way,” admitted Medvedev. “They are better than other tennis players.”

Djokovic described Medvedev and his cohort of 20-somethings as “the leaders of the future” in the build-up to the final, but added: “I’m not going to hand it over to them. I’m going to make them work their ass off for it.”

And boy, did he make Medvedev work. Djokovic opened with a 125mph ace and closed it with an overhead winner to complete a seventh break of serve. In between, he dismantled a player on a 20-match winning streak. Whatever was supposed to count against the Serb, he turned to his advantage.

The oblique muscle tear during the five-set marathon against Taylor Fritz was never a factor. Instead, Djokovic made Rod Laver Arena sing with the sound of his squeaking sneakers while he executed his trademark split-legged baseline defence and rubber-ankled no-look backhands.

The deeper the match went the more physically imposing he became. By the third set he was swatting his foe aside like a demigod. Nostrils flared and eyes bulging, he was a commanding presence holding court, energy coursing through his strokes in irresistible waves. Across the net, Medvedev crumbled.

Neutrals among the crowd gave their casual support to Medvedev, perhaps as the underdog, perhaps as a consequence of the bad press Djokovic has received locally in recent weeks (“It hurt”, the champion later conceded). But the partisan sections were overwhelmingly Serbian and chants of “Nole!” grew in intensity with each baseline-kissing return.

Novak Djokovic and his backroom team, including Goran Ivanisevic (right), celebrate after the match.
Novak Djokovic and his backroom team, including Goran Ivanišević (right), celebrate after the match. Photograph: Fiona Hamilton/Tennis Australia/AFP/Getty Images

After all, Djokovic was supposed to struggle with Medvedev’s serve. The fourth seed had been broken only eight times during the six previous rounds. On Sunday he suffered that ignominy at least twice each set. Medvedev landed all his first serves in his opening service game, and still ended up behind. Djokovic then took Medvedev’s second serve to the cleaners, winning 19 of 28 points. “He was definitely good, I could have done better,” the Russian reflected.

Djokovic’s most profound victory was tactical. Medvedev’s reputation has been built on his cerebral approach to the game and the way he thinks his way through challenges. “I heard Jim Courier calling him a master chess player because of the way he tactically positions himself on the court,” Djokovic mentioned beforehand. “He’s definitely a very smart tennis player.”

But it was Djokovic who set the agenda, especially with his frequent backhand slice drop-shot that drew Medvedev off the baseline and into the net. For a period in the first set, Djokovic appeared too eager to shorten points and avoid being drawn into prolonged exchanges, but by the close he outscored Medvedev 18-13 on rallies greater than nine shots.

Djokovic’s dominance of Melbourne Park is now second only to Nadal’s at Roland Garros on the biggest of stages. He owns a record nine Norman Brookes Challenge Cups, and has lost just three times at the tournament since 2011. The most recent of those arrived in 2018 when he was upset by Chung Hyeun, bringing to a head a turbulent period in his career in which high-profile coaches come and went, and the acceptance of career-threatening elbow surgery.

Remarkably, since Wimbledon later that year, he has won six of the 10 major titles on offer, and three in a row in Australia. “It is a love affair that keeps on growing,” he said. Djokovic’s fortnight in Melbourne also means the blizzard of numbers and records extends to the ATP rankings.

Monday will mark a total of 311 weeks as world No 1 for the 33-year-old, a new benchmark for men’s tennis. Ominously, for his competition, Djokovic indicated his goals will now adapt to allow him to focus even more keenly on grand slams and hunt down whatever mark is set by Nadal and Roger Federer, who both have 20 career slams to the Serb’s 18.

Those comments contributed to a post-match press conference with a tone suggesting a man transitioning into a different, perhaps final, phase of his career. There was little celebratory grandstanding or reliving of big points. Instead there was the professed love of a family of which he has seen little in recent weeks, and is destined to miss for prolonged periods during another pandemic-influenced season.

“It has been emotionally one of the most challenging grand slams,” he said. “It was very challenging to keep my mind serene.” But like so many challenges in his extraordinary career, it was one Djokovic overcame.

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