Novak Djokovic, the Hard-Court King, Conquers His Tenth Australian Open

Only eight players in the long history of men’s tennis have won a total of ten or more major titles. Novak Djokovic, of course, is one of them. On Sunday, in Melbourne, at the Australian Open, he won his twenty-second major—his tenth on one court, Rod Laver Arena, the main show court in Melbourne Park. That victory—6–3, 7–6(4), 7–6(5), over Stefanos Tsitsipas—ties him with Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam wins by any player in the men’s game. Nadal, too, has earned a considerable portion of his major titles on one court, Philippe-Chatrier, the center court of the Stade Roland Garros, in Paris—thirteen French Open championships, as astonishing a string of triumphs as has ever been accomplished in sports. It should take nothing away from that achievement to note that professional tennis, in the Open era that began in 1968, has come to be played mostly on hard courts, and that those who play on the men’s tour have mostly built games—big serves, big forehands—to win on hard surfaces. No player in this era has yet come up with a hard-court game to match that of Djokovic. At the trophy ceremony following Sunday’s championship final, Tsitsipas said of Djokovic, “He is the greatest that has ever held a tennis racquet.” That’s a debate starter. That he plays smarter, more consistent tennis, with fewer weaknesses to probe, than any man who has ever set foot on a hard surface: not much room for debate there.

There was little dazzle to Djokovic’s straight-set win over Tsitsipas, which, among other things, raised his ranking to, once again, No. 1 in the world. (He displaces the young Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who is injured and was forced to skip the Australian Open.) A Djokovic triumph, more often than not, is a methodical grind, an exercise in inevitability. That’s what Tsitsipas endured. The tone of the match was set in its very first minutes. Djokovic held comfortably the first two times he served—his serving throughout the tournament was superb, and, in turn, he put relentless pressure on Tsitsipas’s serve—and he earned two break points (but failed to convert them) the first time Tsitsipas served. But Djokovic grabbed a break in the second of Tsitsipas’s service games on a double fault, after Tsitsipas went for too much in an effort to ward off a crushing Djokovic return. How often, with his peerless return game, has Djokovic coaxed that kind error from an opponent? It was pretty much all he needed to secure the first set.

What tension there was to the match occurred in the tiebreaks that ended the second and third sets. In both of them, Djokovic established early leads but tightened up—the crowd support for Tsitsipas from Melbourne’s sizable Greek community seemed to get to him, especially in that first tiebreak—and let Tsitsipas back in. That Djokovic went on to win both tiebreaks had mostly to do with forehand errors from Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas’s best shot is his forehand, a long, flowing, often punishing one that is among the best in the game. Interestingly, Djokovic chose to test it from the opening moments of the match—sending ball after ball toward Tsitsipas’s forehand wing, varying pace, height, spin, and depth, drawing surprising errors even in routine mid-court rallies, and, perhaps, wearing down Tsitsipas’s confidence in the shot that he is most confident of. In the second-set tiebreak, Tsitsipas hit two forehands long and netted another. In set three, with Djokovic serving at 6–5 in the tiebreak—championship point—he drove a forehand to Tsitsipas’s forehand corner, and Tsitsipas, on the stretch, sailed one last forehand long. Methodical. Inevitable.

Djokovic’s two weeks in Melbourne were not without drama, or melodrama. He clutched his left hamstring in a tune-up match before the Australian Open, and, during much of his run to the championship in Melbourne, he played with a taped thigh, which he continued to rub and stretch during matches. As has happened before, there were questions about the true extent of Djokovic’s soreness or injury; as has happened before, he chose to lash out at those doubting that he was hurt: “Only my injuries are questioned. When some other players are injured, then they are the victims, but when it is me, I am faking it.”

Then, late last week, a video emerged of Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, celebrating a quarterfinal Djokovic victory Wednesday night with fans on the Australian Open grounds. Along with fans draped in Serbian flags were those holding Russian flags, and a man wearing a T-shirt with the “Z” symbol, which was first seen hand-painted on Russian tanks at the start of the invasion of Ukraine and has since become a symbol of support for Russia’s devastating war. Serbia and Russia are Slavic nations with long cultural and political ties; Vladimir Putin and his war have strong support among Serbs. Australian Open officials had banned the display of Russian and Belarusian flags. (Russian and Belarusian players were not identified by their countries, as is the case for all tennis tournaments since the invasion.) Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia wanted Srdjan stripped of his Australian Open accreditation. Srdjan said that it was all a misunderstanding, and he stayed away from his son’s player’s box for his semifinal and the final. (Among the Djokovic fans who did attend the final was one who waved a skull-and-crossbones Chetnik flag—once the flag of anti-Axis Serb-underground partisans, today the flag of ultranationalist proponents of an expanded Christian Orthodox Greater Serbia. Maybe it’s time for tournaments to ban all flags.)

Both the sore hamstring and the reaction to his father’s behavior weighed on Djokovic, as he related in his press conference following the final. So did what unfolded in Melbourne last year. He’d irked, and provided political fodder for, the Australian government by arriving for the Open without having received a COVID-19 vaccination and adamantly refusing to get one. It turned into an international fiasco, and he was eventually deported before the tournament got under way. A new government welcomed his return to Melbourne this year. But was there anxiety about returning? Did he arrive with that wounded sense he seems at times to cultivate, the sense of being slighted, disrespected? Did that, in turn, fuel his commanding performance during the past two weeks? He sobbed uncontrollably in his player’s box after his victory on Sunday. I’ve seen a lot of Novak Djokovic, but I’ve never seen that. Maybe even he can’t know what he was releasing there.

Nor can he know what the rest of the season holds for him. Foreign nationals must be vaccinated against COVID to enter the United States. That means, come March, unless he gets vaccinated, he cannot play Indian Wells or the Miami Open, two of the tour’s biggest hard-court events. And, unless there’s a change before midsummer, he’ll be barred from Cincinnati, another significant American hard-court tourney, and also the U.S. Open, with its hard courts. The world’s best hard-court player, with, at age thirty-five, much more tennis behind him than before him, may not set foot on all that many hard courts in 2023. The drama, it seems, if not Djokovic’s hard-court brilliance, will, in the coming months, continue. ♦

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