Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at Brighton Beach after defeating Russia's Daniil Medvedev.(AP)
Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at Brighton Beach after defeating Russia's Daniil Medvedev.(AP)

No walk in the Park for Novak Djokovic

  • A one-sided final notwithstanding, Djokovic braves a 3rd round abdomen injury making it his hardest Slam victory.
By Rutvick Mehta, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON FEB 22, 2021 08:03 AM IST

To put Novak Djokovic’s record-extending ninth Australian Open title in context, let’s go back to the third round. The moment Taylor Fritz’s ball sailed long, Djokovic lunged back, both arms flexed out wide, head skywards and eyes closed. That Hulk-like pose was accompanied by a shriek that lasted a good few seconds, reverberating across an empty Rod Laver Arena that had been vacated due to the flash lockdown in Melbourne. He shook Fritz’s hands, threw his racquet and yelled again, this time also hitting his chest with his fist, while walking towards his box.

Going purely by the decibel levels on television, the volume of that roar was several notches higher than the one Djokovic let out on Sunday after winning the final against Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.

Not often do top players engage in theatrics after a Grand Slam third round match, but for the world No. 1 this was no ordinary victory. Cruising towards a routine straight-sets outing, the Serb sustained an abdomen injury in the third set. Unable to serve at optimum and barely able to move on the court, he lost the next two sets. With the pain easing a touch in the final set, Djokovic extracted every drop from his physical reserves to cross the line. In the on-court interview, he feared the injury was a tear, and wasn’t sure if he could come back on the court again. But Djokovic said he would remember the match “forever”, relishing how he pulled through it.

Before his fourth-round contest against Milos Raonic and quarter-final against Alexander Zverev, Djokovic was forced to skip practice to give himself the best chance to at least turn up for the battle. In both those matches, he showed visible signs of pain, grimacing, often twitching and turning between points and feeling his heavily strapped abdomen but fighting on to four-set wins. It was only in the semi-final against debutant Aslan Karatsev that Djokovic declared to be pain free.

Djokovic has never lost the Australian Open after entering the semi-finals, and he kept it that way for his ninth title too, a third on the bounce. However, this was no walk in the Melbourne Park for him, a scorching display of the Djokovic dominance in the Australian summer that the tennis world has so often witnessed since his first Grand Slam win here in 2008. In his previous eight titles, Djokovic had not dropped more than three sets en route to the last-four stage; thrice that number being zero. In the last two weeks he lost five, four after the injury.

This was un-Novak-like at the Australian Open, yet the end result was Novak-like at the Australian Open.

“Emotionally it was one of the hardest tournaments that I’ve ever had,” Djokovic said in the press conference on Sunday. “If there was a tournament where I want to risk any more damage, and try my hardest to battle, it’s here.”

Djokovic extended his own record for the most Australian Open titles to nine, not quite Nadal-esque in Paris so far but inching closer. Also to the number 20, where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal co-exist for most Grand Slam men’s singles titles. Djokovic is two shy, and by defeating two of the standout members of the GenNext in his last two finals in Melbourne—he beat Dominic Thiem in 2020—the 33-year-old has proven again just how improbable it is to question his Aussie authority.

If there was anybody who could dare do it this time, it was Medvedev. The Russian walked into the final on the back of a 20-match unbeaten streak, all on hard courts. Twelve of those victories were against top-10 players, including a straight-sets thrashing of Djokovic at the ATP Finals in London last November.

That seemed like many, many Novembers ago on Sunday. Djokovic laid down the marker early, starting the final with an ace and cashing in on Medvedev’s susceptible forehand to break him the next game. The course correction came soon from the Russian, who evened things up in the fifth game with some desperate defence that made Djokovic err by going for a drop shot. Medvedev was starting to get his feel of the final; Djokovic was feeling it too.

But then came some magic that champions like Djokovic tend to produce come crunch time. Serving to take the opener into a tiebreaker, Medvedev got the taste from the full Djokovic buffet of shots: a big forehand winner down the line, a quality return of second serve to which Medvedev could only put the ball back in play, a backhand pass from the baseline past Medvedev despite him covering the angle at the net. Djokovic’s swift beginning to the first set met a sublime ending.

Unflustered, Medvedev counter-punched by going a break up to start the second. But Medvedev’s unforced error count (he had 30 overall to his opponent’s 17) was ever-rising against Djokovic’s ever-solid presence on the court, and the Serb broke back immediately in a run of four straight games.

That’s when Medvedev started to lose the match in the mind as well. At the end of 5-2 for which Djokovic summoned a couple of quality first serves to hold from deuce, Medvedev broke his racquet in fury. In the next game after netting a simple forehand, Medvedev muttered at length towards his box. As a double fault and a couple of errors ended the set, Medvedev walked back to his seat, still talking away to his coach, and slammed his racquet on the court again.

In his only other Grand Slam final at the 2019 US Open, Medvedev forced Nadal to win in five after being down two sets to none. But this wasn’t that Medvedev. Not mentally, at least. After squandering two break points in the opening game of the third set, Medvedev had little chance of a comeback. Especially not when Djokovic was pulling out a serve and volley that made even his coach Goran Ivanisevic stand and applaud. Especially not when Djokovic was pointing to his mind after the penultimate game.

Standing on the podium with the trophy, Djokovic ended his victory speech by thanking the court that has given him half of his Grand Slam titles. “I love you, and each year, more and more,” he said. “The love affair keeps growing.”

In joy, sorrow and in pain.

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