Perfect score: Djoker is the ace

Ten out of ten, Novak Djokvic. The great Serb has played 10 Australian Open finals and won every one of them. The latest was a 6-3, 7-6, 7-6 eclipse of Greek fan favourite Stefanos Tsitsipas in a moderately anti-climactic contest on a packed and boisterous Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. It re-established him as the No.1 player in the world. Morally, he was anyway.

Novak Djokovic gets his hands on the Australian Open trophy for the 10th time.Credit:Eddie Jim

In an extraordinary postscript, all the complex and sensitive tensions of the last fortnight bubbled and boiled over. Djokovic climbed into his box, hugged all of his coterie and then collapsed to the floor, overcome and in helpless tears. But conspicuously absent was his father, Srdjan, a lightning rod for controversy.

“Only my team and my family know what we have been through the last four or five weeks,” Djokovic said after re-composing himself for the presentation ceremony. “This is probably the biggest victory in my life, considering the circumstances.”

Djokovic is a 10 out of 10 player in Australia. When he gets into the country, he wins. He has prevailed in 40 matches in a row in this country, not losing on or in any court, only in a federal minister’s office, since 2018.

He was 10 out of 10 in this tournament; the only set he lost for the fortnight was to an obscure qualifier and might be seen retrospectively as an act of philanthropy. Tsitsipas tested Djokovic’s full repertoire in the final, but did not challenge his mastery. His evolution is such that he would have become the No.1 player himself if he had won here. That’s further testament to the rarefied air Djokovic breathes.

Djokovic’s triumph drew the curtain on a turbulent, but ultimately successful Australian Open. Despite the decimation of the stars pre-tournament and in early rounds, and notwithstanding the absence of self-proclaimed God’s gift to tennis Nick Kyrgios, the crowds flooded in.

As Rafael Nadal said a couple of years ago, tournaments make players, not players tournaments. In the case of Djokovic and the Australian Open, they are one and the same anyway.

The turnstiles finally stopped at nearly 36,000 on the night and a record 840,000 for the tournament, the last intake swarming all over Melbourne Park in the cool evening air. It didn’t matter that they did not have RLA tickets, there were screens everywhere and bars and eateries, too.

The difference in age between Djokovic, 35, and Tsitsipas, 24, was the widest between finalists at the Australian Open in the Open era. It ought to have favoured the younger man.

But Djokovic is proving to be not just a player for the ages, but an ageless player. He is now level with Rafael Nadal on a record 22 major titles. The next, in Paris, is even more Nadal’s natural habitat than Melbourne is Djokovic’s.

Tsitsipas has played and lost two major finals, both to Djokovic. He is now installed in the top 10, but will begin to feel the pinch of time. “You still have a lot of time,” Djokovic consoled him, “much more than me.”

There’s a political theory called “the gradualness of inevitability”, most recently invoked when England rugby sacked Eddie Jones and often seen at work in the AFL and NRL. It applies when an outcome is preordained, but a number of steps must be followed anyway. That was Djokovic in this tournament.

Once No.1 and new-gen star Carlos Alcaraz withdrew, and Nadal bowed out early, Djokovic stood head and shoulders above the rest, even though that stance was on an irksome hamstring. He reiterated after the final that he would not have played if this was a tournament other than a major.

By the final, everything was intact. Instead of strapping on his hamstring, there was a negligible stripe of tape. Truly, it must have been the slightest hamstring injury in history, and yet it could not have been an act; Djokovic had no need for one. It’s another part of the Djokovic conundrum.

RLA was and is his stage, as the Globe was to Shakespeare. Of two roughly equal sets of historically excitable and sometimes rowdy fans, his were the louder. Even before the match began, there were chants of “Novak, Novak”. For Djokovic in Melbourne, that might have been a first. He deals in the unprecedented.

From his first service game, when he fell break points behind, Tsitsipas was under duress. Djokovic, on the other hand, was Djokovic.

Like Tommy Paul in the semi-final, Tsitsipas would have come with plans and found them unrealisable. Paul had thought to play volleys and drop shots, but Djokovic’s relentless depth did not let him. He had thought to attack Djokovic’s second serve, but found it as impregnable as his first.

Tsitsipas would have aimed to pressure Djokovic with his booming forehand. Boom it sometimes did, but Djokovic’s defensive game is a sonic shield. It was not as if Tsitsipas was thrashed in the first set, it was just that he never looked like winning it. Djokovic worried away at Tsitsipas’s backhand and starved him of his powerful forehand.

In the second, Tsitsipas stayed with Djokovic, which is a greater compliment than it sounds. Momentarily, his tenacity told, Djokovic allowed himself to become agitated by the crowd, his game loosened a little and Tsitsipas held, but could not win, a set point.

The tie-breaker was a curio. Djokovic served consecutive double faults, but Tsitsipas could not make good of them, missing four regulation (for him) forehands. After an exchange of service breaks to begin the third set, they paced one another to another tie-breaker. Tsitsipas will feel that he did not lose the breaker, but that Djokovic won it. That’s what he does.

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