There are few things in the history of professional sport as painful as facing Novak Djokovic at prime time on Rod Laver Arena.
Inside the stadium he has made his own, Djokovic suffocates all challengers on return yet simultaneously serves them off the court. He smothers foes with his baseline aggression yet his defence makes the court feel so narrow. Over the past 15 years, no rival has been spared.
On Sunday night, Djokovic expanded an unprecedented era of dominance in men’s singles by defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to win a record-extending 10th Australian Open title.
A year after Rafael Nadal pulled ahead in the record books on the very same court, with Djokovic absent from the tournament. The Serb has issued a response. He equals Nadal’s all-time men’s singles record of 22 grand slam titles, with the 10th crown at Melbourne Park a peerless marker of his dominance.
Djokovic is just the second man in history to win 10 or more singles majors at any grand slam tournament, after Nadal’s 14 French Open titles. He will return to world No 1 for the first time since June last year, when he lost the top ranking to Daniil Medvedev.
A duel between the sporting talismans of two of Melbourne’s most vibrant immigrant communities, Greek and Serbian, meant the grounds of Melbourne Park were packed, even though thousands were unable to secure a ticket inside Rod Laver Arena.
One notable absence was Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, who was not present for a second match in a row after being filmed taking a photograph with a pro-Vladimir Putin fan on Wednesday.
After sporting a heavy wrap on his left hamstring throughout the tournament, Djokovic started on Sunday night with only a small amount of tape. Even his hamstring was ready. Djokovic flitted through his own service games while forcing Tsitsipas to work desperately hard to keep up. Tsitsipas recovered from 0-40 down in his first service game, but Djokovic’s return pressure yielded a double fault at 1-1, sealing the decisive break.
In the second set, Tsitsipas slowly established some rhythm. The 24 year-old pieced together service holds by squeezing the baseline, taking his forehand early and moving forward to the net to pick off drive volleys. Most importantly, he kept hold of his serve and remained ahead throughout. His boldness left a mark across the net.
As Djokovic became rattled, unloading his frustration at his box, the crowd inserted itself. While the Serbian fans made their voices heard throughout, many others cheered Djokovic’s double faults and chanted during points, forcing the umpire, Louise Engzell, to frequently request silence.
One clear opportunity arose for Tsitsipas at 5-4 as Djokovic briefly felt the scoreboard pressure, playing a rare poor service game and facing a set point at 30-40. During the most consequential moment of the match, Djokovic was ultra-aggressive with his forehand, crushing an inside-in forehand winner and punishing Tsitsipas’ tentativeness.
The underdog would not receive another chance. Djokovic held serve, he outsteadied Tsitsipas in a tense second-set tie-break and then, after both men held firm until the third set tie-break, Djokovic pulled away.
He sealed victory with one final vicious forehand, then he pointed at his head and a heart. As he embraced his family in the crowd, he laid down on the ground and sobbed, the tears continuing to flow as he returned to his courtside chair.
A year ago, Djokovic was deported from Australia on the eve of the tournament after attempting to enter Australia with an exemption from Covid vaccination. This time, he will leave Melbourne as an Australian Open champion once more.
“I have to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve played in my life,” Djokovic said afterwards. “Not playing last year, coming back this year … I want to thank all the people who made me feel welcome to be in Melbourne, [and] in Australia. There’s a reason why I’ve played my best tennis here in Melbourne.”
“Only the team and family knows what we have been though in the last four or five weeks,” he added. “This is probably, I would say – the biggest victory in my life, considering the circumstances.”
Among many things, this tournament has underlined Djokovic’s ability to block out all outside issues and focus on his work on the court. Djokovic had arrived in the tournament with a hamstring issue, struggling late on during his title run in Adelaide.
After feeling his hamstring early in the tournament, he has eviscerated all foes from the second week, winning every single match since the third round in straight sets, conserving energy at every opportunity. The furore this week surrounding his father, which could have distracted many others, did not affect his dominant form.
Since his first grand slam title here 15 years ago, when a 20-year-old from Belgrade first began to achieve his dreams, Djokovic has won every grand slam and Masters 1000 event multiple times. He has gradually built arguably the most complete game the sport has ever seen. And now, the 35-year-old has given himself a chance to take the lead over Nadal in this endless grand slam race.