Novak Djokovic was 20 years old and playing his second straight Grand Slam final when he became a Grand Slam champion for the first time – fittingly at the Australian Open, a tournament where he has since gone on to establish an unmatched legacy.
The third-seeded Djokovic fought from a set down to beat unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-2) and win his first Major title.
Back in 2008, the Serbian was almost a shock winner at a time when Roger Federer was utterly dominant at Grand Slams bar the French Open where Rafael Nadal had already established his kingdom. But 13 years later, the benefit of hindsight tells us that it was the start of something exceptional. It turned out to be the first ever title in what would become of the strongest legacies in the history of men’s tennis.
Incidentally, Djokovic’s win snapped the run of 11 straight Majors won by Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. In fact, it was the first Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open that did not feature either Federer or Nadal, who were beaten by Djokovic and Tsonga, respectively, in the semi-finals. The current world No 1 beat the then world No 1 in the semi-final in straight sets and ended his record 10 straight Grand Slam finals.
If ever there was a sign of things to come, this was it. It would be another three years before he would win his second Major and begin his storied dominance in earnest with an extraordinary 2011 season, but the foundation was laid at the 2008 Australian Open.
Djokovic came into the year’s first Grand Slam as world No 3 and primed for a breakthrough after reaching the finals of the US Open the previous year, where he lost to Federer. He dropped only one set in seven matches, beating the likes of fifth seed David Ferrer (6-0, 6-3, 7-5) and 19th seed Lleyton Hewitt (7-5, 6-3, 6-3) before the semi-final against Federer (7-5, 6-3, 7-6(5)).
Despite never having won before, he was the clear favorite heading into the unexpected but exciting final.
In the summit clash Tsonga – who was playing in his first ATP final at senior level – grabbed the early momentum to take the first set after trading breaks to start. The crowd in Melbourne, despite a sizeable Serbian presence, seemed leading towards the Frenchman. But it was Djokovic who rallied and to edge ahead taking the next two, despite stiff resistance from Tsonga.
It was an early display of the all-court defence and athleticism that has defined Djokovic’s game. It was also a test of immense mental strength he has so often shown in his career to bounce back. At one point, the Serb dropped six set points in the third set but won the game to grab the momentum for good. Then in the fourth set, he needed treatment on his thigh while leading 3-2 ahead and the set went into the time break.
But in that decisive moment, Djokovic stood tall and dominated the points to clinch his first Grand Slam victory after three hours six minutes. He finished with 46 winners and 35 unforced errors.
“I always believed. I didn’t want to think in a negative way. I always had the big support, especially from my parents. My father, I think he always believed more in me than I did in myself. They are my lucky charm,” Djokovic said as per the report in the The New York Times.
There was another interesting quote in the NYT article, when Djokovic was asked whether this was a turning point in the men’s game, marking the end of Federer’s dominance. “I don’t think so, no. It’s not possible that only one tournament is changing the history.”
Perhaps not the one tournament, but it was indeed a turning point in tennis history as we now know.
As we head into the 2021 Australian Open – delayed to February due to the coronavirus pandemic – the world No 1 will be eyeing to defend his title and win a record-extending ninth title 13 years after his first.
Watch the highlights here: