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MELBOURNE, Australia — They come nearly every year now, this new crop of challengers in men’s tennis who so desperately want to begin their time in the sun, to win the championships that everyone in the game values most and beat the three players considered the best to ever play on the biggest stage.
And each year, they fall short, making the task seem even more impossible.
This is how it went Sunday night at Melbourne Park, where Novak Djokovic did what he always does. Djokovic, the veteran from Serbia ranked No. 1 in the world, both defeated and discouraged the fourth-ranked Daniil Medvedev of Russia, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, in the Australian Open men’s singles final.
The victory gave Djokovic his ninth Australian Open singles championship, a tournament record on the men’s side, and the 18th Grand Slam title of his career. Djokovic has made nine Australian Open finals and won each time, including in the last three years.
With this Grand Slam championship, Djokovic is now just two behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the race to achieve the most major men’s singles titles in a career. Djokovic, 33, is a year younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer, who will soon begin his comeback from two surgeries on his right knee, though it remains to be seen whether he will be a championship contender or embarking on a farewell tour.
Grand Slam titles are the first measuring stick in any discussion of who is the greatest player of the modern and professional era of tennis, also known as the Open era, which began in 1968.
The Big Three of men’s tennis, as they are known, have 58 now. Players under 30 years old have just one. The younger ones, like Medvedev, 25, who moments after the loss called Djokovic and his cohorts “cyborgs of tennis,” are all too familiar with the math.
“When they are in the zone they are just better tennis players,” Medvedev said.
Djokovic was in the zone Sunday night, playing what his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, called “a masterpiece.”
It was a victory Djokovic needed badly, Ivanisevic said, after he was disqualified from the United States Open in September for swatting a ball that hit a line judge, and the drubbing Nadal gave him in the French Open final in October.
“I have to agree with my coach,” Djokovic said of Ivanisevic’s assessment of the past few months. “I wanted to start this year in the best possible fashion.”
His prospects did not look promising.
Shortly after arriving in Australia, Djokovic became a public enemy when he requested special treatment for 72 players put on 14-day hard quarantines because 10 people on three chartered flights those players took to Australia tested positive for coronavirus upon arrival.
Then came an injured abdominal muscle — doctors, he said, have told him it is torn — that nearly forced Djokovic out of the tournament. Yet he survived a five set test in the third round and a four-set challenge with two tiebreakers in the quarterfinals.
He managed the abdominal injury better than he expected, then vanquished the hottest player in tennis. Medvedev had a 20-match winning streak heading into Sunday night.
Attempting to place a little more pressure on his challenger, Djokovic called Medvedev “the man to beat” in the tournament. In reality though, few doubted Djokovic’s edge. He entered the match as the two-time reigning champion and with a well-earned aura of invincibility at Rod Laver Arena in the late rounds.
Rod Laver Arena sits a few hundred yards from the Yarra River, and just a few miles from Port Phillip Bay. When evening comes and the lights turn on, gulls flock to the rafters and squawk through the night. With Djokovic playing so many of his matches at night here, it becomes difficult not to imagine those birds as his personal vultures, bearing witness as he slays his latest victim.
The reasons for Djokovic’s dominance here are both physical and psychological. The final always takes place at night. Those night matches that the birds come for, along with legions of Serbs who scream the “Olé, olé, olé, olé,” chant when their favorite son most needs it, are often played in cooler temperatures than those that take place during the warm, dry days of the Australian summer. Heat has always tended to melt Djokovic. A cool evening, like the one on which he met Medvedev, is his favorite playing partner.
Also, players say the shift in the weather completely changes the conditions of the court. Balls stop popping off the ground, keeping so many of Djokovic’s hard, flat groundstrokes below his opponent’s knees and out of their strike zones. What looks like a simple backhand is anything but, especially when the player hitting the original shot has never lost the ultimate match here, and too often the opponent’s counter ends up wide, long or in the middle of the net.
Medvedev made 67 errors, 30 of them unforced, though against Djokovic the difference between a forced error and an unforced one is negligible. Djokovic served just three aces, but he won 73 percent of the points on his first serve and 58 percent on his second serve, numbers that usually translate to a dominant night.
Djokovic won seven of 11 break points and 16 of the 18 points when he came to the net. He outsmarted a player considered to be among the smartest and most creative in the game by keeping Medvedev guessing and setting the kinds of traps Medvedev has been known to lay for his opponents, hitting three shots to set up the winner on the fourth.
Neither Djokovic, Federer nor Nadal have been beaten in a final to a player currently younger than 30.
Dominic Thiem of Austria came close, outplaying Djokovic for long stretches in last year’s Australian Open final before Djokovic prevailed in five sets. That match appeared to hint at a shrinking gap between the veterans and the young players trying to nip at their heels.
But as Djokovic lifted the trophy once more in Melbourne, he made it clear that he had no intention of giving up ownership of the crown he claims as his own and the court he calls his second backyard anytime soon.
Djokovic said it was a matter of time before Medvedev and his peers started winning Grand Slams, but at the moment he is in a race against history and his two biggest rivals. It drives him, and there is no thought of slowing down.
“I don’t feel like I am older or tired or anything like that,” he said.
Nor does he look it.
Before Sunday’s match, Lleyton Hewitt, a former world No. 1 and a two-time Grand Slam champion in the 2000s, said Medvedev was going to need to create a moment to make himself believe that he could beat Djokovic on this night, on this court, like when Hewitt won the first-set tiebreaker against Pete Sampras in his first triumph at a Grand Slam final.
The first test came early for Medvedev, after Djokovic broke him in his first service game and cruised to a 3-0 lead. But a game later, Medvedev outclassed Djokovic on a 28-shot rally that had both players sliding from sideline to sideline to get his first chance to break Djokovic’s serve. Minutes later it was 3-3. Game on.
Five games later the set appeared headed for a tiebreaker, but the moment of truth for Medvedev arrived sooner. Serving at 5-6 and down a point, he sent a forehand wide with Djokovic pushing to the net, and caught a bad break as what could have been the winning shot on the next point ticked the top of the net cord and gave Djokovic a sitter for an easy passing shot.
Just like that, triple set point. Big serves saved the first two, but then Medvedev sent a forehand into the net. The big hill that no one in Medvedev’s generation has been able to summit suddenly seemed that much higher.
After prevailing in that first set, Djokovic shifted from a steady run into a sprint. He broke Medvedev three times in the second set and had him breaking one racket, swatting the ground with its replacement and shrugging his shoulders at his coach, as if to say there was nothing he could do.
“Even if I would have done better, it doesn’t mean that the score would be different,” he said.
On match point, Djokovic rose for a lob, stretched and whipped one last winner past Medvedev. He collapsed in celebration on the court then rose quickly, pumping his arms at his box and the crowd. By March, he will have spent more weeks holding the No. 1 ranking than any other man. The reign goes on, for Djokovic and for the Big Three.
“Roger and Rafa inspire me,” Djokovic said as he sat next to the winner’s trophy. “That is something I have said before. I will say it again. I think as long as they go, I’ll go.”
And then he just might go some more.
Source: Tennis - nytimes.com