As Tommy Paul looked back on the brutal experience of facing Novak Djokovic for the first time in his career on Rod Laver Arena last week, he sighed deeply. Paul had entered his first grand slam semi-final with a wealth of different ideas about how he would disrupt his opponent and impose himself. He soon found that they amounted to nothing.
Paul had wanted to serve and volley, he explained, but Djokovic’s returns peppered the baseline and instead forced him back. He wanted to mix drop shots into his game, but Djokovic’s incessant depth made it impossible. He had planned to slice but he was already under immense pressure on his backhand wing from early on. “He didn’t really let me execute any of the game plan that I had laid out for myself,” he said.
That feeling of helplessness, as Djokovic stopped opponents from being able to play tennis as they normally would, has been one of the common sensations shared by all after he outplayed Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday to win his 10th Australian Open title.
After getting demolished in front of his home crowd, Alex de Minaur admitted that he “didn’t really know what to do out there”. Tsitsipas, the fourth best player in the world, concluded after losing in straight sets that he could not have done more. “There’s nothing that I could have extracted more for today. I did everything possible,” he said.
As with so many tournament wins, this triumph particularly serves a reminder of how complete and foolproof Djokovic’s game is. Many top players cannot function without their best stroke, yet Djokovic has been able to win so much for so long because of how many built-in contingencies it has. When one strength fails, he still has so much more in his game than most opponents.
Djokovic’s backhand is one of the best strokes in the history of the sport and has won him many grand slams, yet in Melbourne it was actually off. He struggled with his timing and he offered up far more errors than usual. The few moments of joy that his opponents experienced during the tournament usually came through his favourite stroke.
He responded to his backhand troubles by simply dominating with forehand. Throughout the tournament he was ultra-aggressive on the stroke and he struck it freely until the end. Against Tsitsipas alone, Djokovic struck 14 forehand winners to just three forehand unforced errors, thoroughly outplaying Tsitsipas’s own forehand, which is largely considered one of the best in the game. It was present in nearly every decisive moment and Djokovic saved set point in the second set with a vicious inside-in forehand winner.
After the match, Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, explained that Djokovic’s hamstring injury forced him to play more aggressive tennis and that attacking mentality was most reflected in his forehand.
“He stepped up and he was smacking unbelievable forehands. Really probably the best two weeks of forehands that I ever saw him in his life. I never saw him hitting better forehands before. He was really going for it,” he said.
A second grand slam win in seven months for Djokovic, after Wimbledon last year, further underlines how little there is to debate about the all-time statistical standings.
Djokovic has already won every grand slam tournament and Masters 1000 event twice. This week he enjoys his 374th year at No 1, already 64 weeks more than second-placed Roger Federer and it is only a matter of time before Djokovic rises past Steffi Graf’s all-time record of 377 weeks at the top.
And now he is level on slams with Rafael Nadal. Together, despite their advancing years and the constant hype around the new generations, Djokovic and Nadal have won 16 of the last 19 grand slam tournaments. The opposition may not have been most impressive in Melbourne, but Djokovic and Nadal have been so far from the rest because of how brilliant they are.
It remains to be seen how long Djokovic will be able to continue like this, but he is still entirely motivated, still moving so fluidly around the court, still relatively healthy even after a week of managing a hamstring injury. His actual tennis level is the least of his problems, rather how long he remains mentally engaged, and whether he can maintain a balanced life off-court life. “Physically I can keep myself fit. Of course, 35 is not 25, even though I want 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, who did not make the trip to Melbourne, Djokovic is next scheduled to compete in Dubai next month. His unvaccinated status means that he is still unable to enter the United States for Indian Wells and Miami, but then all focus will be on the clay court season. Carlos Alcaraz will return and Tsitsipas may well feel he has better chances on his favourite surface but most of all, Nadal should be back from his hip injury and ready to defend his turf.
“You still have these two guys battling,” said Ivanisevic, smiling. “This was Novak’s home court, and now we going next one to Rafa home court in this handball match of 22-22.”