With a record-extending ninth Australian Open title, Novak Djokovic wrote a perfect finale to what had been a far-from-perfect tournament for him.
The world No 1 snapped red-hot Russian Daniil Medvedev’s 20-match winning streak with a straight-sets 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 demolition in just under two hours for his third straight title Down Under.
It was one of his finest performances in a final in Melbourne, battling through a variety of barriers (mostly in the lead-up to it rather on the big night itself) to reiterate his dominance at the season-opening Grand Slam and extend his Major tally to an emphatic 18.
It was yet another reminder of what a complete player Djokovic is and that there is virtually no one who can come close to beating him when he is fully fit and dialled in at the Rod Laver Arena.
That it comes after a far from perfect build-up for the most successful man at Melbourne Park, makes it even more impressive. From his comments about quarantine to recovering from what he felt was a muscle tear in his abdomen during the third round match, it has been a challenging few weeks for Djokovic in Australia. On the last day, he was up against a player who by all parameters had the ability to unsettle him. But when the occasion arrived, the Serb rose to it and gave a tennis lesson to the most promising challenger on the ATP Tour.
On paper, Medvedev was to give him the toughest fight this year. The 25-year-old is almost a mirror image of Djokovic when it comes to playing styles; a baseliner who can generate deep and powerful groundstrokes. He serves big, defends solidly, can exploit angles and shown the mental and physical stamina to stay in big matches. He was on a 20-match winning streak with titles at Paris Masters, ATP Finals and ATP Cup; and had beaten top 10 players in his last 12 matches.
On court, the most in-form player on tour could not take a set off Djokovic and managed to win just two games apiece in the last two sets.
Here’s the catch: Medvedev didn’t play as badly as the score suggests and fought hard for close to two sets. But running into the wall of Djokovic’s determination, he suffered the same fate the best players over the last decade. The world No 1 first crushed his resistance and then his spirit.
That’s where Djokovic’s genius lies – in breaking down the game of the best of his rivals and play with such efficiency that it looks almost easy (it isn’t). He did the same with Rafael Nadal two years back, when the Spaniard won just eight games in the final.
A tactical masterclass
The ebb-and-flow of the first set is a great indicator of this: Djokovic broke Medvedev in the very first service game. The fourth seed got the break back in the fifth, winning a 28-shot rally. Serving to stay in the set in the tenth, he held to love with clutch tennis. But when he had to do it again to force a tiebreak, Djokovic stepped up the attack with sensational winners and grabbed the set.
The Russian still stayed toe-to-toe breaking in the first game of the second set, but Djokovic just elevated his level to take four straight games and all but seal the final. By the end of the second set, Medvedev’s body language showed signs of the helplessness he was feeling. This was the most in-form player in the world right now and he could do nothing against Djokovic, even when he had break points.
That the world No 1 has a rock solid overall game and is a tactical master is not exactly a revelation. From early in the game, he showed that he had the gameplan in place to anticipate and unsettle Medvedev. He won all his net points in the first set, kept throwing drop shots and the occasional serve-and-volley to lure his opponent forward and attacked the forehand, the Russian’s weaker wing. The many variations right from the start planted the seed of doubt in Medvedev’s mind.
The 33-year-old didn’t allow the younger opponent to get any rhythm going or even relax on his service games. Against the best returner in men’s tennis, Medvedev’s serve would always be under pressure and the sheer number of returns on the first serve is proof. But even in the games he served well, a couple of small wrong moves were pounced upon. Two bad points in the 12th game cost him the first set and it was all downhill after.
That’s the extraordinary pressure factor when you face Djokovic at the Rod Laver Arena, much like facing Nadal at Roland Garros... there is simply no let-up, at no point can you even consider relaxing.
Inexperience in big matches is an inhibiting factor for the NextGen, but the way the Big Three exploit chinks is an elite skill that cannot be simply taught. The Russian has seen that once already, when he pushed Nadal to a decider in the US Open 2019 final, but could not close it out. This time, it was more one-way traffic but it will be more important in teaching him what only such an experience can — how to win the final of a Grand Slam in men’s tennis. It sounds simple, it isn’t.
In his much-praised post-match speech, Medvedev said Djokovic was “like a God” to him back when he was a player ranked in the 500s and how the Serb made him feel comfortable.
In his second Grand Slam final, he witnessed first-hand what Djokovic is like when his God-mode is activated at his favourite venue in the world. And perhaps the experience will push him forward just like Djokovic was pushed when he first ran into Federer and Nadal.
The path to the final wasn’t as smooth sailing as it usually is for Djokovic and he wasn’t even close to 100% for a few matches but he found a way to overcome it all. Indeed, as far as the Serb is concerned, all’s well that ends well.