Come rain or shine, an opening week filled with whispers of injury concerns or a perfect bill of health, rest assured that Novak Djokovic will deliver. For more than a decade he has made winning the Australian Open an almost annual habit and he did so once again, holding off early pressure from Daniil Medvedev before dismantling his challenger with a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 win to secure his ninth Australian Open title.
Djokovic maintains his perfect record in finals at Melbourne Park, an achievement so great that it was put into context most appropriately by, of all people, his beaten foe. “To win nine Australian Opens, I need to win every year until I’m 34,” Medvedev said. “I mean, I believe in myself, but I don’t think I’m able to do it. Same with Rafa. I mean, 13 Roland Garros ... we’re talking about some cyborgs of tennis in a good way. They’re just unbelievable.”
In the process, Djokovic pulled off numerous notable achievements. He ended Medvedev’s rousing 20-match winning run with a statement performance. Of the 15 times in the open era that the Australian Open men’s singles title has been defended, Djokovic accounts for five of those instances. With his sixth grand slam title since turning 30, he moves level with Rafael Nadal as the all-time leader in that category. He still does not really seem that old.
In this unique period in the sport where every grand slam title win and loss carries such historic weight, one achievement stands above all: Djokovic has now won his 18th grand slam championship. Having burst into what once seemed a two-man race to history, he now has sight of Nadal’s and Roger Federer’s 20 titles. Djokovic will additionally record his 311st week at No 1 on 7 March, surpassing Federer as the all-time record holder. He says he will now turn his sole focus to the grand slam titles.
Despite Medvedev’s suggestion that Djokovic would be under the pressure of history against a challenger with nothing to lose, in the opening games it was he who looked arrested by the moment. But what followed was a quality, tension-filled opening set as both players worked each other out in tireless baseline exchanges.
The match was finely poised with the pair standing at 5-5, but not long after that it was essentially over. After holding serve to love, Djokovic seized the moment by transcending his level on the defining shot of his career – his return of serve – and he broke serve at 6-5 to take the set.
From the second set until the final forehand return on match point that kissed the baseline off a 126mph fireball, he spent the following hour tearing Medvedev’s excellent serve to shreds. Djokovic broke serve seven times in the match, constantly deflecting Medvedev’s boldest first and second serve inches from the baseline. During his own service games, he reliably produced big first serves in the clutch moments.
It is often said of Djokovic that he doesn’t have a distinctive, rousing trademark shot but it helps to look a little closer. The sight of him incessantly redirecting well-placed 127mph bombs to the tips of his opponent’s toes is as spectacular as any other shot in the sport. By the time Medvedev fell down two sets to love and the match, he had demolished a racket and was openly seething towards his team. He had been suffocated by Djokovic’s constant pressure and he did not find a way back into the match.
For Djokovic, this marked the end of another wild ride. After entering Australia to a cascade of criticism over his attempts to address his colleagues’ quarantine, he has dealt with injury problems after falling while leading Taylor Fritz by two sets in his third round. In his victory speech he made a point of thanking his physio Ulises Badio.
After deciding not to discuss the specifics of his injury during the tournament, Djokovic later said his MRI showed an abdominal tear of the oblique. According to his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, his team had taken a Covid test each day with the expectation that he would be out of the tournament and they would have to fly home.
“I know there’s been a lot of speculation, people questioning whether I’m injured, how can I recover so quickly, it’s impossible to do that,” Djokovic said. “I get it. I mean, look, everyone is entitled for their own opinion, and everybody has the freedom and the right to say what they want, criticise others. I just felt like it was a bit unfair at times. But, hey, it’s not the first nor the last time.”
The quality of tennis, however, provides no room for debate. Before the final, he firmly rebuked the notion he was under pressure from the younger generation and this was a masterful demonstration of how wide the gap is still. There can be no doubt Djokovic remains in firm control of his destiny as he chases history down at full speed.