Comeback Novak

Today Novak Djokovic is once again world number one in men’s tennis, after he claimed a record 10th Australian Open singles title at the weekend. He overcame the Greek player, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in straight sets by 6-3, 7-6, 7-6.

At the end of the match, the Serbian player was a blubbering mess, shoulders shaking, sobbing into his towel and gasping for air. He later said it was the “biggest victory of my life”. There are a number of reasons why he might have expressed the sentiment.

Novak was famously deported from this Slam in 2022, due to his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and spent eleven days fighting the decision via his lawyers before finally accepting the government’s decision. His story completely overshadowed the tournament, which did not make him very popular. Even if he had managed to get the decision overturned, the reaction of the crowd would no doubt have been pretty hostile.

And he was probably extremely nervous about whether the chorus of disapproval might spill over into this year’s tournament but, no doubt much to his relief, he was warmly welcomed by the fans.

Novak has been off the tour for most of 2022 due to his non-vaccinated status. He wasn’t permitted to play in the US and missed the entire North American hard-court season as well as the Grand Slam event in September.

And. despite winning Wimbledon, he earned no ranking points since they were retracted by the ATP in retaliation for the All England Club banning Russian and Belarusian players due the war in Ukraine.

All of which meant that he came into the Australian Open ranked a relatively lowly number seven.

Rafael Nadal won the tournament last year in Novak’s absence, overtaking the Serb’s Slam tally of 21. That must have been a hard one to swallow. I wonder if he could even bring himself to watch the match on the box.

So, in the Grand Slam race, at the start of this year’s tournament, Nadal was on 22, Djokovic on 21 and Federer on 20. This was about the quest for the highest number of Slams between the three players and who would be confirmed as the GOAT (Greatest of all Time) at the end of his career. Of course, many think the GOAT is not purely about the number of Slam titles but that’s a whole other subject.

After the final, Novak donned a tracksuit top emblazoned with the number 22 which seemed a bit presumptuous and rather rubbing his opponent’s nose in it, but then I seem to remember Roger Federer doing the same thing a number of years ago at Wimbledon. It smacks of a lack of humility to have that jacket in waiting before the match, although I understand that his team might have been responsible.

Djokovic breezed through this tournament, stroking his shots like a knife through soft butter, gliding to balls that would have been unreachable for most players. Quite frankly, he made his opponents look clumsy and a bit silly. The Serb doesn’t have huge power but absorbs that of his opponents, enabling him to return the ball with interest. He seems to be able to hit the racket’s sweet spot almost every time which is why he makes the game look so easy. He also appears to have a superior perception of the geometry of the court. He knows exactly how to set up the point, where and when to unleash a winner. He bides his time, strokes the ball to a length or an extreme angle, forcing the opponent into awkward positions, and then pounces when he sees the opening. He makes it all look very simple.

The world number one spot was also on the line in this final and with Djokovic’s win, he is back at the top, despite playing so few events over the past year. It must feel very satisfying.

So we now have Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal tied in the Grand Slam race at 22 titles.

Rafa looks pretty spent although he may just yet again nab that French Open title at Roland Garros in May, but Novak looks as fresh as a daisy. He surely has at least a few more Slams in him and it seems unlikely that anyone else will ever surpass that number.

No wonder Novak Djokovic was in such an emotional state at the end of this match. He might be a bit of a marmite player in terms of personality and I’ve been pretty harsh on him in the past. However, even I have to concede that he is surely at least one of the greatest of all time, even if his game is not the prettiest. That accolade, of course, goes to Roger Federer.

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