Novak Djokovic did not need his 17th Major at the Australian Open on Sunday, in a rollercoaster final, to prove that his big-match mentality is almost unparalleled in tennis. After all, he won his 16th when he was down two championship points and still triumphed at Wimbledon 2019.
Yet, Djokovic’s mental machinations seem strange so often, fluctuating between extremes. He can tune out a partisan crowd rooting for his opponent but there are times when a single cheer can affect him no end. He can play clean, error-free games on end but when he starts sliding, it takes a while for him to stop.
In a way, we saw the two sides of Djokovic when he won his eighth Australian Open and 17th Grand Slam title. It was a tenacious fight back as he came back from two sets down, needed medical attention, and then, beat Dominic Thiem.
His triumph will go down as a remarkable study in how to bounce back from the brink. The defiance Djokovic displayed as he put those two poor sets away and won the last two with a vengeance was down to his ability to compartmentalise and reset to bring the match back on his racquet against a younger, fresher opponent.
Back from the brink
To those who didn’t watch the match, the 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 scoreline could seem typical of a closely fought five-setter. But for a huge chunk of the final, the match was one-sided with Thiem directing the course in the second and third set.
The 32-year-old suffered a strange dip in energy and concentration and was a set away from losing an Australian Open final for the first time. To make matters worse, he lost his cool when he was given time violations and in his subsequent furious bust-up with the umpire, actually tapped him on the foot – a violation of the physical abuse rule.
When he took time off after the third set, even Thiem would have sensed the door ajar.
But given the kind of fighter Djokovic is – overcoming economic, physical and mental barriers in the past – he brushed himself off and all but erased the lethargy and errors to race towards the title.
Still, the anger seemed to spill over as he celebrated the title by shushing the spectator who was cheering for Thiem between points. Even with a majority of the crowd with him (a rarity in finals when he plays against the other two members of the Big Three) he seemed to have problems with the crowd and the fact that they cheered for his opponent.
But for the fierce of competitor he is, any external anger and injustice he feels is so effectively translated into his tennis that almost no one can match up to him on court. In that epic Wimbledon final, he dropped the second set 1-6 after taking the first one in a tiebreak but went on to break Roger Federer who had two championship points on serve. He said that he tried to hear Novak, when the crowd chanted ‘Roger’.
How he notched up the eighth Aus Open win
This final started like last year’s, where he had crushed Rafael Nadal in straight sets.
He broke Thiem in the very first game and was in terrific touch with drop shots and angled winners. He countered everything thrown at him and took the first set despite dropping his serve once.
But there was an increasingly strange turnaround as he looked visibly tired in the second. The slide in interest and intensity was stark and his return balls were all mid-court with no depth. Thiem took that set and raced to a 4-0 lead in the third with a double break to take a two sets lead.
What happened to the second seed? Djokovic admitted he didn’t know why he suffered the blip either and said the doctor believed he was dehydrated, which surprised him. This was only the second time he was down two sets in an Australian Open final.
But once he bounced back, his groundstrokes were as charged up as his game. He saved a break early in the fourth, rediscovered his potent second serve and used serve and volley to critical effect.
The switch in the momentum was so rapid that the 26-year-old Austrian seemed to have no answer. Thiem maintained a steady level but his opponent raised his to the one we know.
There are those that say Djokovic is the kind of player who can make an enemy out of anyone… even the crowd that supports him. The way he seemed to stop trying in the third set and his attitude towards the match official and the crowd is an off-putting attribute to some. But a look at social media after he was down two sets is a good indication of the respect he commands – very few believed that this would be a four-setter.
The ebbs and flows of a Djokovic match can be disconcerting at times, but his champion instincts have reared their head when he is in trouble so strongly in the past that no one counts him out. Resilience despite vulnerability is a basic virtue for athletes but very few players have Djokovic’s unique ability to visibly teeter across both sides of the roller-coaster and yet consistently come out on top.
When it comes to fighting back, the Serb is a champion and the reward is his 276th week as the world No 1 and the distinction of being first man in the Open Era to win Grand Slam singles titles across three decades.