Winning the Australian Open is reminiscent of Novak Djokovic’s flawless game | Australian Open 2023

When Tommy Paul looked back on the brutal experience of facing Novak Djokovic for the first time in his career at Rod Laver Arena last week, he breathed a sigh of relief. Paul had entered his first Grand Slam semi-final with a wealth of different ideas on how to upset his opponent and impose himself. He soon found that they were not insignificant.

Paul wanted to serve and volley, he explained, but Djokovic’s returns scattered the baseline and forced him back instead. He wanted to mix drop shots into his game, but Djokovic’s relentless depth made that impossible. He planned to slice, but was already under tremendous pressure on his backhand wing from the start. “He didn’t really let me execute any of the game plan that I had set out,” he said.

That sense of helplessness as Djokovic prevented his opponents from playing tennis as usual was one of the common feelings shared by everyone after he outplayed Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday to win his 10th Australian Open title.

After being knocked down in front of his home crowd, Alex de Minaur admitted he “really didn’t know what to do there”. Tsitsipas, the fourth-ranked player in the world, concluded after losing in straight sets that he could do no more. “There’s nothing more I could get out of today. I did my best,” he said.

As with so many tournament victories, this triumph in particular is a reminder of how complete and flawless Djokovic’s game is. Many top players cannot function without their best shot, yet Djokovic has been able to win so much for so long because of how many built-in conditionals he has. When one power fails, he still has a lot more to his game than most opponents.

Djokovic’s backhand is one of the best shots in the history of the sport and has won him many Grand Slams, but in Melbourne he actually fell short. He struggled with his timing and offered a lot more mistakes than usual. The few moments of joy his opponents had during the tournament usually came from his favorite shot.

He answered his backhand problems by simply dominating the forehand. During the tournament, he was ultra-aggressive on the stroke and hit it freely till the end. Against Tsitsipas alone, Djokovic hit 14 forehand winners to just three unforced forehand errors, completely outplaying Tsitsipas’ own forehand, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the game. He was present at almost every crucial moment and Djokovic saved a set point in the second set with a vicious forehand winner from the inside.

After the match, Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, explained that Djokovic’s hamstring injury has forced him to play more aggressive tennis and that the attacking mentality is most reflected in his forehand.

“He stepped up and was hitting incredible forehands. Really maybe the best two weeks of forehands I’ve seen in his life. I’ve never seen him hit a better forehand before. He really wanted to do it,” he said.

Novak Djokovic stops his car to greet fans in Melbourne after his triumph at the Australian Open. Photo: Kelly Defina/Getty Images

A second Grand Slam win in seven months for Djokovic, after last year’s Wimbledon, further underlines how little there is to debate about the all-time statistical ranking.

Djokovic has already won twice each Grand Slam and Masters 1000. This week he is enjoying his 374th week at No. 1, already 64 weeks more than second-placed Roger Federer, and it is only a matter of time before Djokovic surpasses the all-time record Steffi Graf’s times of 377 weeks at the top.

And now he is tied with Rafael Nadal in terms of slams. Together, despite the advancing years and the constant hype surrounding the new generations, Djokovic and Nadal have won 16 of the last 19 Grand Slams. The opposition may not have been the most impressive in Melbourne, but Djokovic and Nadal were so far apart because of how brilliant they are.

It remains to be seen how long Djokovic can keep it up, but he’s still fully motivated, still moving so fluidly around the court, still relatively healthy even after a week of dealing with a hip injury. His actual level of tennis is the least of his problems, rather how long he stays mentally engaged and whether he can maintain a balanced life off the court. “Physically, I can keep myself fit. Of course, 35 isn’t 25, although I’d like to believe it is. But I still feel there is time ahead of me. Let’s see how far I go,” he said.

After some time at home with his family not traveling to Melbourne, Djokovic will next compete in Dubai next month. His unvaccinated status means he cannot yet enter the United States for Indian Wells and Miami, but then all focus will be on the clay court season. Carlos Alcaraz will be back and Tsitsipas may feel he has a better chance on his favorite surface, but above all Nadal must return from his thigh injury and be ready to defend his court.

“Those two guys are still fighting,” Ivanisevic said, smiling. “It was Novak’s home court and now we go to Rafa’s home court in this 22-22 handball match.”

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