MELBOURNE, Australia – The smile on Novak Djokovic’s face after hitting a backhand volley past Daniil Medvedev to secure the ninth record title at the Australian Open on Sunday wasn’t pure joy or satisfaction. It was relief.
As the chant “Nole, Nole, Nole” echoed around the Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic dropped his bat and fell on the court to enjoy his unprecedented performance at Melbourne Park. The world number one defeated Medvedev – a man who made it to the finals with 20 wins on Sunday – in less than two hours 7: 5, 6: 2, 6: 2 and took his 18th main title to within two to close slam triumphs against its greatest rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
But Djokovic’s win against the Russian has more than exacerbated the race for most men’s major titles. It also ended Djokovic’s miserable 12 months on and off the pitch.
After winning the Australian Open last February and giving him the No. 17 main cup, Djokovic appeared to be on his way to breaking what is perhaps the most discussed record in modern sport.
“At this stage of my career, I value Grand Slams the most,” said Djokovic after his triumph in Melbourne last year. “There are many statistics that I am obviously proud of, [but] Grand slams are the reason I still compete. “
Djokovic hoped last year’s win Down Under “would set the tone for the rest of the year” but things did not turn out as he had hoped. His final year was a mixture of bad luck and questionable decisions that temporarily derailed his pursuit of the greatest tennis legacy of all.
This tough stretch started shortly after last year’s Australian Open. The world soon struggled with COVID-19, which was spreading rapidly. The sport came to a standstill.
The French Open, originally scheduled for May, was postponed to October after the US Open, while Wimbledon was canceled. Suddenly there were only two slams left for Djokovic, who was in good shape, in 2020: Roland Garros, in whom Nadal had the upper hand in his career, and the US Open. In addition, almost every ATP event scheduled between March and August has been canceled.
With a five-month break in tennis, Djokovic proposed the idea of an exhibition-style tournament in his home region in the Balkans between June and July. The ATP gave the idea a green light and named it Adria Tour.
“Unlike many other players, I was able to train almost every day because we lived in a house with a tennis court,” said Djokovic at his home in Serbia when the tour was announced. “I didn’t post clips on social media because I didn’t want to make other players angry.”
Regardless, it wasn’t long before the event was heavily criticized. Despite the global pandemic, Adria Tour venues were lacking social distancing protocols and thousands of fans were seen without face masks. Even the players interacted with each other, ignoring the health advice to avoid any physical contact.
During the tour, a video was distributed showing Djokovic and a number of other tennis stars partying shirtless at Lafayette Cuisine Cabaret Club in Belgrade. A few days later, Djokovic, then the president of the ATP Player Council, announced that he and his wife Jelena had signed COVID-19. The rest of the Adria Tour was canceled immediately.
“The mindless decision to continue this ‘exhibition’,” tweeted Australian rival Nick Kyrgios at the time. “But that’s exactly what happens if you ignore all the logs. Unfortunately, when [Djokovic] should show some guidance and humility, he was missed. “
A former Grand Slam champion coach who refused to be identified told ESPN: “The big question on my mind is: Was this ignorance or arrogance on the part of Djokovic?”
A few months later, Djokovic came to New York as the overwhelming favorite to win his fourth US Open. With Federer and Nadal both absent, Djokovic was one of only three Grand Slam champions in the entire men’s draw along with Andy Murray and Marin Cilic. It was Djokovic’s tournament to lose and the bookies agreed and installed him as a favorite for the title.
But instead of a relatively stress-free fortnight in Flushing Meadows, Djokovic quickly became embroiled in drama and controversy.
Even before a ball was hit, the Serb came under fire for suggesting not to participate in the tournament as COVID-19 protocols would limit his entourage on the court to just one member.
“No one has been able to play sanctioned events or make money since February, and here we have the best player in the world who says it will be too difficult to bring just one person,” said American Danielle Collins. “It’s easy to turn down the US Open when someone has made nearly $ 150 million in their career.”
Djokovic ended up playing despite saying he was struggling with persistent neck stiffness leading up to the event. It didn’t seem to bother him too much until he faced Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta in the fourth round, which turned out to be the most notorious tennis game of 2020.
After his serve was broken in the 11th game of the opening set by Carreno Busta and dropped 5-6, a frustrated Djokovic pulled a spare ball out of his pocket and hit it hard on the back of the court, where he hit a linesman in the throat . It was not intended, as an apologetic Djokovic immediately raised his arm and rushed to support, but it left tournament referee Soeren Friemel no choice but to disqualify the number 1.
“Due to the fact that the ball was hit furiously and recklessly and landed right on the referee’s neck, the decision was made that Novak would be behind,” explained Friemel.
Djokovic was fined $ 250,000 for reaching the last 16 and stripped of his tournament ranking points. But without a doubt the bigger blow for him was that he wouldn’t add to his Grand Slam record.
A few weeks later Djokovic reached the final of the French Open in Paris, where he was comprehensively beaten 6: 0, 6: 2, 7: 5 by clay court champion Nadal. Suddenly Federer and Nadal were tied at 20 slams while Djokovic was stuck at 17.
The 2021 Australian Open offered Djokovic the opportunity to press the reset button – a return to the place where he had won a record of eight titles.
The thought of a ninth title seemed almost impossible nine days ago when Djokovic appeared to be seriously injured after he slipped in his game in the third round against the American Taylor Fritz on the white lettering “MELBOURNE” behind the baseline of the Rod Laver Arena was. Djokovic’s health became the biggest talking point of the tournament.
But not even a torn abdominal muscle could stop him from making more history in Australia.
“He needed this win so badly,” said Djokovic coach Goran Ivanisevic. “He’s been through a lot, especially after the US Open last year and a pretty bad final at Roland Garros.”
Had Djokovic lost in Melbourne, he would have stayed three majors behind Federer and Nadal, and the Spaniard’s favorite French Open would have been ahead in June. To simply tie the record, Djokovic would have had to do what no man has done before: after his 34th birthday, which will arrive in May, win at least three majors.
But his win at the Australian Open brings him closer than ever. Djokovic is the youngest of the trio and this ninth Australian Open title could be the catalyst for him to deliver the record performance.
It shows that for Djokovic there really is no place like Melbourne – especially after a year full of setbacks. This tournament seems to be exactly what he needed.
“I want to thank Rod Laver Arena. I love you more and more every year,” said Djokovic on Sunday. “The more I win, the better I feel every year. The love affair continues.”