Supernova(k)

Novak Djokovic is a better player now than he was ten years ago.

It took me a while to believe this. My brain would melt when I’d watch clips of his gymnastic retrievals from 2012 and 2013, and as impressively as he defends now, it’s not quite as insane. (Look at some of the stuff he does here, for instance.) But everything else has gotten better. His serve, once an unreliable shot in the dark — he hit more double faults than aces in the entire 2010 season — is now one of the best in the world. Combine that with a forehand he can paste as hard as anyone, and you have a serve-plus-one game that is very much in the Peak Roger Federer mold.

That alone makes Djokovic good enough to beat most players on tour. He didn’t lose his serve once in the 2019 Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal, he only lost it twice in the 2021 final against Daniil Medvedev. But then you have the return of serve, arguably his greatest asset. No matter who you are, Djokovic will eventually get a read on your serve. You’ll thwack a 135 mph bullet down the T and Djokovic will send a comet back at your feet. His first service game is usually easy, a hold at love or 15, while his opponents immediately find themselves dragged to deuce or worse.

Just listen to what Medvedev says about his first service game in his 2021 final loss to Djokovic at 5:20 of this video — he wasn’t tight and made all his first serves, only to get broken anyway.

There’s the backhand, unrivaled in its consistency and timing. The feathery drop shot. The continuously improving touch at net. The ability to change direction off both wings at any point in a rally. The smothering depth on his groundstrokes.

What makes Djokovic most amazing is not any one of these attributes. In fact, none of them in isolation are exactly paramount to his success anymore. His true superpower is that his game has become balanced enough that a couple central parts of his game can go completely haywire and he can still beat almost anyone. At this tournament, Djokovic suffered from a hamstring injury, hampering his ability to pull off his trademark backhand defense in the open stance. Typically, Djokovic can send back shots three-quarters of the way to the baseline from incredibly uncomfortable positions on his backhand wing; there’s minimal difference in his shot quality whether he’s doing the splits or standing stock-still. But over this fortnight, Djokovic had to abandon that fantastic skill and send back defensive slices, which had more air under them and were easier to attack.

And it didn’t even matter. You can blame Djokovic’s opponents for failing to rise to the occasion, sure. Grigor Dimitrov had chances in the first and third sets and blew them epically, losing in straight sets. Andrey Rublev was always playing from behind in the quarterfinal and couldn’t muster up as many as five games in a set despite being seeded just one spot below Djokovic. Arguably the best performance against Djokovic this tournament came from Roberto Carball├ęs Baena in the first round — the Serb was never in danger of losing there. But let’s take a second to appreciate Djokovic’s ability to get by without certain parts of his game. Not having his open-stance backhand defense barely seemed to make him easier to beat. Djokovic had so many backup plans, such sharp tactics, such an ability to expose the shortcomings in his opponents’ games, that he was untouchable anyway.

*****

No ATP player, past or present, can match Djokovic’s peak level on a hard court (especially not this hard court). Djokovic once reeled off two sets against Federer on Rod Laver Arena in under an hour. He beat Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the 2019 final. He has beaten Andy Murray in straight sets in an Australian Open final, twice. In the fourth round this year, he beat Alex de Minaur badly enough to make Australian fans cover their eyes. The poor underdog won five games total in three sets, he could not hit a single winner past Djokovic from the baseline (literally), and he was clearly dazed in press.

Djokovic did all that to de Minaur with a negative winners-to-unforced-errors ratio.

Some are bemoaning the lack of competition for Djokovic this year — Tommy Paul as a semifinal opponent is not in the same league as Federer, Murray, or Stan Wawrinka. They’re right. But the way I see it, Djokovic has earned this. He waded through the lava during the early years of his career, losing again and again (and again) to Roger and Rafa. He overcame them, outlasted them, and this is his reward.

But I think that Djokovic has attained such a high level at the Australian Open that who he plays doesn’t matter much anymore. It’s similar to Nadal at Roland-Garros in his best years; from 2005 to 2014 (and then again from 2017 to 2020), his draw was basically irrelevant. He beat Federer and Djokovic at Roland-Garros in 2006, 2007, and 2008. In 2013, he had a hellish draw, culminating with a 4.5-hour marathon with Djokovic in the semifinals, ran through all of it, then beat poor David Ferrer in a straight-set final. With Djokovic, does anyone really have the tools to beat him at the Australian Open right now? How would you have an opponent, even the most quality competition in the draw, go about beating him? I just don’t see it.

The simple fact is that there is no working blueprint for beating Djokovic at this tournament. You have to hope he self-destructs. Tennis analysts and strategy coaches beg his opponents to come to the net more often, but like Tommy Paul alluded to in his post-semifinal presser, you can’t come to net if you’re constantly being pushed behind the baseline. Serve-and-volley is a suicide mission when Djokovic is taking his huge cuts on the return of serve. If it were me, I’d try to hit drop shots on every single point to make Djokovic as miserable as possible, but the guy is faster than most players on tour, even at 35.

Paul touches on what I think is the most difficult part of playing against Djokovic: He hits so consistently deep that his opponents don’t have time to implement their gameplan, almost regardless of what that gameplan is.

The Paul match was a good example of how gigantic Djokovic’s margin for error is. He made something like 25 unforced errors in the first set, practically throwing away four games in a row after having set point at 5-1. Then he held easily at 5-all and broke Paul from 30-love down at 6-5. From there, he lost just three games for the rest of the match. If Djokovic’s backhand is misfiring, like it was in the very first game of the match, he’ll throw down a few huge first serves. If the serve is off, he’ll dig in for some long rallies. If the rallies aren’t going his way, he’ll toss in a drop shot, give a little bit of ground, then suddenly be willing to play a 40-shot exchange on a big point. And when things are working, when he builds a lead and starts taking every ball early, going for return winners on first and second serves, it’s video game tennis. There is nothing anybody can do in response.

Djokovic rarely hit his video game peaks in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, but managed to win in straight sets anyway. It’s a favorable matchup for Djokovic; he can ruthlessly expose Tsitsipas’s weaknesses (the backhand and the return of serve) while offsetting his strengths (the serve and forehand). Djokovic only dropped serve once in the final and reacted by breaking back immediately. The scoreline — 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) — hints at moments of tension, but Djokovic led the second-set tiebreak 4-1 and the third-set tiebreak 5-0. He was never letting go from there. Match point was emblematic of the way Djokovic breaks his opponents down: He hit a big serve to Tsitsipas’s forehand, which came back. He rallied to Tsitsipas’s backhand twice, tempting that wing to break down. It didn’t, so Djokovic simply ripped an ultra-risky inside-in forehand that Tsitsipas got a racket on but couldn’t navigate between the lines. Djokovic will pick on your weaknesses, but even if they hold up, he’ll just produce the necessary brilliance from his own game.

Djokovic’s motivation used to be fragile at times — after winning the 2016 Roland-Garros to not only complete the Career Grand Slam but the non-calendar Grand Slam itself, he had a two-year down period. When he crushed Nadal to win the 2019 Australian Open, his third straight major title, he wasn’t quite himself for the next couple months. I thought he needed to be threatened by a rival to play his best tennis. But he seems to have overcome that. I think he needs to win a crazy number of majors (say, 25 or something) to truly get the mainstream GOAT honor that he craves, and I think he knows that. So despite already having won more than enough to deserve the accolades, he’s intent on not just beating records, but putting all of them out of reach.

He’s well on his way. This title marks Djokovic’s 10th Australian Open and his 22nd major overall, tying him with longtime rival Nadal and foreshadowing a mouthwatering duel at Roland-Garros to decide the race to 23. Djokovic is certainly the more in-form player and has been the better player overall for quite a while, but every time he’s looked in position to run away with the Grand Slam event race, Nadal has come back at him. In 2016, Djokovic pulled within two, having won the last four in a row, only to slump until 2018. At the end of 2021, Djokovic tied Nadal for the first time, winning three straight majors to create a deadlock at 20, only for Nadal to win the first two majors in 2022. With Roland-Garros being the crown jewel of Nadal’s empire, and unlike his matches at this tournament, Djokovic will need to be at his best to win that hypothetical clash of the titans.

That said, Djokovic has built an already-majestic career that, unlike Nadal’s, seems nowhere near over. I don’t want to be hyperbolic here, because 19-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz couldn’t play this tournament, and after winning the U.S. Open and reaching #1, he was going to be Djokovic’s biggest threat in Melbourne. But as for the rest of the tour (at least for now), it is clear that Djokovic, despite his lengthy tenure at the top of the game, cannot be dragged down from the summit. Everyone might just have to wait until he decides to descend on his own terms.

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Published by Owen

Owen Lewis has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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