Djokovic sticks to familiar Melbourne script
Djokovic sticks to familiar Melbourne script
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
It is a saying perfectly applicable to Novak Djokovic’s anthology of finals at Melbourne Park.
There have now been nine of them. Once, they mostly pitted him against fellow Big Four rivals, especially Andy Murray, who fell in four finals to Djokovic. Rafael Nadal was twice a victim. Djokovic curiously never played Roger Federer in an AO final, instead swatting the Swiss aside four times at the semifinal stage.
Those match-ups have since given way to title clashes against different, younger challengers.
But it has not mattered who appears across the net. For Djokovic has won them all.
In 2020, it was Dominic Thiem taking on the superstar Serb in what was Thiem’s first Grand Slam final on a hard court. In a spectacularly physical, brutal affair, the Austrian led two sets to one before eventually succumbing in five.
It was perhaps the most vulnerable Djokovic has ever looked in an AO final.
And so, when he came up against Daniil Medvedev on Sunday night, another rising star in even better form than Thiem was 12 months prior, many were predicting an upset.
Medvedev entered his second career Grand Slam final with momentum. And lots of it.
He was the healthier player, with Djokovic having carried an abdominal injury throughout several matches, sustained during his third-round win over Taylor Fritz.
He was the fresher player, having spent considerably less time on court – four hours and 25 minutes less, to be precise – than Djokovic, who dropped three more sets en route to the final.
He was the more confident player; as Djokovic laboured through several rounds, Medvedev routed top-10 stars Andrey Rublev and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarters and semis to extend his winning streak to 20 matches.
He had won their last meeting; Djokovic was one of Medvedev’s victims in that streak, going down 6-3 6-3 to the rampaging Russian in the group stages of the ATP Finals last November.
And he felt less pressure. Medvedev declared prior to the final: “I like that I don’t have a lot of pressure, because he never lost in eight times that he was here in the final. It’s him who has all the pressure … he has for sure more experience, but more things to lose than me.”
Except that Djokovic did not lose.
The opponent, coupled with the circumstances, made this an especially satisfying triumph.
“It has been definitely emotionally the most challenging Grand Slam that I ever had with everything that was happening, injury, off-the-court stuff, quarantines. It has been, least to say, a roller-coaster ride in the last four weeks,” he revealed.
“It was very challenging for me to keep my mind serene and keep my focus directed into what matters the most. I have put a lot of energy and time, along with my team, to be here sitting with a trophy.
“So I'll take a lot of positives out of this month here in Australia.”
Djokovic did what he often does in Australian Open finals, leaping out to a 3-0 lead in the first set and sending a message down the court to his opponent in the process.
Medvedev, a US Open finalist in 2019, presented a new riddle for Djokovic in a major final, with the 25-year-old executing unorthodox strokes, a mixture of off-paced rally balls and injections of power, and frequent changes in court positioning. And he made the first set a competitive struggle.
But it was a riddle Djokovic could, as always, solve. And as the match wore on, Medvedev appeared increasingly dispirited as it became clear there was no stopping the Serb at his happiest hunting ground in the world.
Djokovic was better on serve. Better on return. Better in the baseline exchanges – both short and long. Better at the net. Better on break points.
“Since these courts have turned blue, he’s played 15 matches against top-five players. And he’s won 15 of them,” Jim Courier stated on the Channel Nine broadcast.
It was 2008 when the Australian Open replaced its green Rebound Ace courts with blue Plexicushion. That was the year Djokovic won his first AO title, and first Grand Slam trophy, with victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Thirteen years on, it was Medvedev’s turn to try and unseat him.
“Medvedev was definitely a guy to beat today. I mean, 20-match winning streak,” Djokovic said.
“Tsitsipas, (Alexander) Zverev, Medvedev, they all won World Tour Finals, multiple Masters 1000 events and (have a) high ranking. They have all contested in semis and finals of slams, so it's just a matter of time (before they break through).
“But hopefully not so close.”
It could well be Tsitsipas or Zverev lining up against Djokovic in an Australian Open final of the future.
But as Medvedev discovered on Sunday night at Rod Laver Arena, it has, so far, always been the same result.