One dominated on the blue Rod Laver Arena, the other watched from the players’ box. As Boris Becker watched his ward decimate the hapless Andy Murray, there was nothing to do except sit back and relax. It wouldn’t be long before Novak Djokovic wrapped things up.
The German great wasn’t wrong. Twenty years ago, it was he who held up the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy after a hard-fought victory over Michael Chang for his second Australian Open title. On Sunday evening, there was a role reversal of sorts. The difference — the Serb claimed his sixth, an Open Era record which he, no doubt, would be keen to extend.
Djokovic needed 173 minutes to dismiss the Scot 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 (3) to tie with Roy Emerson’s number Down Under and equal Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg in fifth place on the all-time list. A kiss on the blue plexicushion court sealed the deal.
Six Australian Opens, 11 Grand Slams in all, the world No 1 spot firmly in his grasp, one wouldn’t hesitate to say Djokovic is an unstoppable force. “I am playing the best tennis of my life the past 15 months. I feel like I am at the point where everything is working in harmony… I don’t think about limiting my ambitions or what I might be able to achieve,” is how the 28-year-old puts it.
The Serb fell one match shy of completing a calendar-year Grand Slam last season, falling to Swiss Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros. Critics called it one of the greatest achievements since the time the sport turned professional in 1968. He went 82-6 for the season, winning three Grand Slams, making the final of all four Majors, a record six Masters titles, making 15 consecutive finals and losses to only four opponents — Ivo Karlovic (in Doha, the sole tournament where he lost in the quarterfinals), Roger Federer (Dubai, Cincinnati, and a round-robin match in the WTA Tour finals), Wawrinka (French Open) and Murray (Montreal). In 2016, after Sunday’s victory, his match record stands 12-0, include wins over the Big Three.
What is it about his game that’s made him go just that notch higher above all the top-10 players who are gunning for his crown? “I think you need to work twice as hard when you’re up there (top spot),” Djokovic feels.
You have the Federers, Murrays and Rafa Nadals of the world trying, yet failing, at the finals. The Big Three make short work of opponents in the previous rounds but against Djokovic, they fail to match up to the Serb’s intensity and winners which he makes from all over the court. As he hammers down a forehand, the nimble footwork gets him ready for the thundering backhand which opponents fail to reach.
The head-to-head count agrees: Djokovic has now moved ahead in his rivalries with the other members of the Big Four - 23-22 against the Swiss, 22-9 versus Murray and 24-23 against Nadal.
He’s quicker, better and pretty much at a level of his own. Is it the gluten-free diet or marriage and the birth of his son Stefan in 2014 that’s been working in his favour ? Djokovic often credits the latter. “I suggest that to every player, ‘Get married, have kids’.”
But truthfully, it’s his all-surface game that’s made him what he is. Unlike most Europeans who play on clay, he started out on hard courts. For the novice, hard courts are fast and unless one takes the ball early, it’s difficult to prosper. Djokovic’s whole style is based on reaching the ball early and steady footing that allows him to quickly change gears.
Former greats are often left awestruck by Djokovic’s ability to cover his side of the court so fast and so swiftly. No wonder eight of his 11 Majors have come on hard (six in Australia and two at Flushing Meadows).
What’s surprising is that for a player of his stature, he’s never the favourite. Fans applaud his skills but give a standing ovation to Federer and Nadal. Especially Federer, as the 17-time Grand Slam champion always gets the crowd roaring in any part of the world when playing the Serb. It was proved once again in the semifinals in Melbourne.
But Djokovic is a thorough professional. He shrugs and remains businesslike, stating there’s not much he can do about that. Of course, you have the fanatics like there were after his victory. They wanted his shoes and Djokovic happily obliged, throwing them down in the middle of an interview.
As the best in the world, there’s no doubting his abilities on hard, grass and clay. Roland Garros may be unconquered but he has Masters triumphs on clay that say he’s not far from capturing his maiden French Open. “(I’m) very hungry (for Paris). But the wolf needs to eat a lot of different meals to get to Paris. Paris is a dessert,” Djokovic concludes.
It would be the perfect icing on an already delicious cake.
Novak in Numbers
6 Australian Open titles for Djokovic (2008, 2011-13, 2015-16), matching the record of Roy Emerson (1961, 1963-67).
46 Hard court titles, level with Andre Agassi and only behind Roger Federer (60).
11 Grand Slams, drawing level on the all-time list with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg. Ahead of him are Emerson (12), Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal (14) and Roger Federer (17).
7 consecutive tournaments he has won
38 of 39 matches the Serb has won since losing to Federer at last year’s Cincinnati final
11 of 12 meetings he has beaten world No 2 Andy Murray since losing to him in the 2013 Wimbledon final.
21-match win streak in Grand Slams. He has not lost a Slam match since he was defeated by Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 Roland Garros final.
World No 1 since July 2014