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Novak edges closer to the pinnacle

  • Dan Imhoff

Right fist raised and cradling the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in the other, Novak Djokovic grits his teeth, broadly grinning on a sweltering Melbourne night.

It is the scene at Rod Laver Arena nine years ago, a second major trophy three years after his first on that same blue court.

MORE: Djokovic topples Thiem to win eighth AO title

Already the standout third-best player in the world at the time, it was a pivotal moment only months after guiding Serbia to its maiden Davis Cup trophy in 2010.

The world No.1 at the time, Rafael Nadal, already had nine Grand Slam trophies to his name, second-ranked Roger Federer a record 16.

It was impossible to fathom the then 23-year-old would go on to mount a case of his own as one of the greatest to play the sport, nipping at the heels of the two men ranked ahead of him.

It had taken him three years to win his second major, after all.

Now, having led Serbia to the inaugural ATP Cup in Sydney leading in, Djokovic has again carried that belief to Melbourne Park.

The celebration on the dais is more subdued this time round. That’s not to diminish the magnitude of his achievement.

An eighth Australian Open trophy delivered via a 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 triumph over Austrian Dominic Thiem closes the 32-year-old to within two majors of Nadal’s 19, and just three shy of Federer’s record 20.

Djokovic is the first man in the Open era to win majors in three different decades, and just the second in history after Ken Rosewall.

Twelve years after his Melbourne breakthrough, Djokovic is still collecting silverware

“Grand Slams are one of the main reasons why I am still competing and still playing full season, trying to obviously get the historic No.1,” Djokovic said.

“That's the other big goal. I put myself in this position that is really good at the moment.”

He joins his two greatest rivals as the only players to have won at least eight titles at the same Grand Slam event, with Nadal having won 12 at Roland Garros and Federer eight at Wimbledon. Sunday’s win extends the Big Three’s reign to 13 straight majors.

The successful defence of his Australian Open title sees Djokovic displace Nadal as the world No.1, but the ranking has never been his top priority.

“It was more about Grand Slams, to be honest,” he said. “Especially the first part of my career, I was dreaming of winning as many Grand Slams as possible.

“When I started winning a couple of Grand Slams a year, a few years in a row, that's where I felt actually I can maybe challenge Roger and Pete Sampras, all these guys that were winning most Grand Slams in their careers in the history of tennis.”

Australia has been the world No.1's happiest hunting ground

In an Olympic year and as the only member of the Big Three without a gold medal, Tokyo 2020 will be heavily on the Serb’s radar.

That’s step one of five complete of a potential Golden Grand Slam, something no man before has achieved.

“I probably won't be able to comprehend the achievements I had in my career, especially Grand Slams, until I retire from tennis,” Djokovic said.

“I don't take it for granted, don't get me wrong. I'm super happy and grateful and blessed. At the same time, I probably won't be able to go through all different emotions until I have some time and I relax myself with my family. Looking at the horizon, we can dig deep in the emotions.” 

Should the Serb remain fit, driven and healthy, there is every reason to suggest he could reel in both Nadal and Federer.

He has now won at least one title every year for 15 years, and will have clinched at least one Grand Slam title every year since that Melbourne Park victory in 2011.

And if any added motivation was needed, it may well come from off his crowning achievements off-court.

Djokovic admitted the prospect of his two children, Stefan and Tara, being old enough to share in his achievements was an added incentive.

“Definitely I would love that,” he said. 

“That would be a dream come true to have them remembering and being conscious of what is happening, seeing me win big titles. They are the biggest jewels in my life, the biggest blessing I’ve ever experienced.”