MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic came to Australia with a mission, or really a series of them.
To win the championship he had won nine times once again. To win a 22nd Grand Slam men’s singles title and draw even with his rival Rafael Nadal at the top of the list. To remove any doubt anyone might have about whether he remains the world’s dominant player, the most commanding player of the last decade and now this one, too. To show the world that the only way to keep him from winning nearly any tennis tournament is to not let him play.
Check. Check. Check. And check.
A year after Australia deported him over his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, Novak Djokovic reclaimed the Grand Slam title he has won more than any other, capturing a record 10th championship at the Australian Open by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) on Sunday.
In addition to gaining pole position to surge past the injured star Nadal on the career Grand Slam list — and in the G.O.A.T. debate — Djokovic also reclaimed the top spot in the world rankings, making him, at 35-years-old, the second-oldest player to reach that rarefied realm, behind only Roger Federer who was nearly 37 during his last stint on top of the tennis world. Djokovic turns 36 on May 22. Probably a bad idea to bet against him taking that record from Federer, as he has so many others.
Djokovic’s score sheets in this tournament might suggest that these last two weeks were a little more than a vacation Down Under with some tennis thrown in. He dropped only a single set in seven matches. His fourth-round, quarterfinal and semifinal tests were near-complete wipeouts of opponents who appeared beaten from the first ball.
Tommy Paul, the American who was Djokovic’s victim in the semifinal, said when it was over that much of the first set was a blur. Paul had played tennis his whole life but this time, the seconds between points, between the moment he hit a ball and then was on the run chasing after the next one, had never passed so quickly.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
- Coaching That Feels Like ‘Cheating’: In-match coaching has always happened on the sly, but this year is the first time the Australian Open has allowed players to be coached from the stands.
- Rod Laver Likes What He Sees: At 84 years old, the man with his name on the stadium sits courtside at the Australian Open.
- India’s Superstar: Sania Mirza, who leaves tennis as a sleeping giant, has been a trailblazer nonetheless. “I would like to have a quieter life,” she said.
- Behind the Scenes: A coterie of billionaires, deep-pocketed companies and star players has engaged for months in a high-stakes battle to lead what they view as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to disrupt the sport.
Andrey Rublev, a Russian with a fearsome forehand and serve, paced in the hallway in the minutes before being called onto the court. He had played Djokovic three times before, and even beaten him once, but had never faced him at Rod Laver Arena, where across the net he faced an even more invincible version of Djokovic than what he had seen in the past.
“He was playing much better,” a dazed Rublev said when it was over. “I don’t know what else to say.”
In the fourth round Alex de Minaur, playing in front of a hometown crowd ready to cheer him into battle, won just five games. After the demolition of de Minaur, Djokovic said to the Serbian press that playing against an Australian in Australia motivated him because of what the country’s government had done to him the previous year, detaining and deporting him because of his notoriety and his stance against mandated vaccinations.
But Djokovic’s reclamation mission in Australia was filled with hazards. Ahead of the tournament he aggravated his hamstring, forcing him to take the court wearing a thick strapping around the injured area until the final. He hobbled through the first week, playing without the magical movement that is the foundation of his game.
And then, as with so many of his previous injuries, a combination of rest, massages and painkillers made the pain and discomfort go away when it mattered the most.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.