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Djokovic recovers to defend Australian Open against Thiem

Novak Djokovic successfully defended his Australian Open title last Sunday, defeating Dominic Thiem 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 to win his eighth title in Melbourne. Djokovic clinched his 17th Grand Slam overall, becoming the first man in the Open era to win a Grand Slam in three different decades. Following the publishing of the new rankings on Monday, he replaced Rafael Nadal as world number one.

It was a fitting end to what has been an excellent first Grand Slam of the year. The final fully delivered, offering plenty of drama over the 3 hours and 59 minutes. Djokovic dominated the early exchanges and raced into a 3-0 lead in the first set, aided by a strong start on his own serve. He subsequently converted this into winning the first set 6-4, with the serve continuing to underpin his game.

At a crucial point in the second set, with Djokovic a break point down in the ninth game, a time violation saw Djokovic lose his first serve. Thiem capitalised on the opportunity, breaking the Djokovic serve and taking the set 6-4. Thiem was then able to take advantage of this shift in momentum, as by dropping further back whilst returning and so giving himself more time, his backhand was able to come to the fore, allowing him to dictate the tempo of the match. Helped by a temporary Djokovic breakdown – at one point he shouted at the crowd: “Shut the f*ck up!” – Thiem was able to dominate the third set, taking it 6-2 and seizing the lead.

At this point, Djokovic left the court for a second time, having also done so at the end of the second set, for what was later revealed to be issues with dehydration. Returning for the fourth set, Djokovic came out with a more aggressive style of play.  Crucially, he came to the net more in this set alone than in the prior three sets combined, allowing him to exercise control over play to a much greater degree. Djokovic was able to wrestle back momentum, ultimately going on to win the set 6-3.

By this point, the switch in momentum suggested that Djokovic’s eight title at Melbourne was inevitable. Thiem had spent nearly six hours more on court over the course of the tournament than Djokovic, and had 24 hours fewer to recover from the semi-finals than his opponent. It was now simply a case of outlasting his opponent.

The fifth set began with both players holding serve, but a decisive break of the Thiem serve in the third game saw the momentum swing further in Djokovic’s favour. Under the pressure, Thiem began to make an increasing number of unforced errors as he attempted to get back into the match. Theim came close to breaking the Djokovic serve in the following game, but was unable to convert either of his two break points. Despite a valiant effort by Thiem, Djokovic won the fifth set 6-4 and with it a remarkable eighth Australian Open title.

Djokovic nears all-time Grand Slam record

With his victory in the final, Djokovic moves three Grand Slam titles shy of Federer’s all-time record (20 titles), and 2 short of Nadal (19). Will Djokovic be able to surpass these greats and break the all-time record himself? Djokovic stands in good stead to become tennis’ most decorated male player. Federer is now 38 years of age and surely does not have many titles left in him, no matter how well he schedules his year to reduce the physical strain on his body. Likewise, whilst Nadal, at 33, is only a year older than Djokovic, his playing style is so physically strenuous that it is unlikely that he has many years left of play in him.

Djokovic’s game is also developing in such a manner that reduces the strain on his body, shown in Australia through his increasing reliance on his serve; in the final, Djokovic won 76% of points on his first serve, and at one stage won 12 consecutive points on his serve. If Djokovic is able to continue to serve comparably well in Grand Slams going forward, it is likely that he will be able to continue to compete at the top level for a sufficiently long period of time to allow him to surpass Federer’s record.

Furthermore, Djokovic has won five of the last seven Grand Slams, and is therefore the clear form player on tour. He is also indisputably a big game player, with his victory in the final in Australia meaning he has won each of the Australian Open finals he has been in; all these factors mean it is likely that one day Djokovic will hold the all-time Grand Slam titles record.

Lack of support for Djokovic

This leads to the second main talking point of the final: given his role as one of the greatest players of all time, why was support for Thiem so much more vociferous than support for Djokovic? Perhaps the crowd simply wanted to see one of the so-called ‘next gen’ players finally break through and win a major (Thiem has only appeared in three Grand Slam finals). However, if it were Federer or Nadal playing Thiem, one would expect that these greats would command the lion’s share of support, rather than the Austrian. Why is Djokovic, despite all his success, not beloved in the same way that Federer and Nadal are?

There are three possible reasons as to why this is the case: firstly, the Melbourne crowds are fed up of seeing Djokovic repeatedly win the title – in the last ten years, he has won the tournament seven times. It is not that they want to see a ‘next gen’ player claim victory instead of the dominant trio of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, it is that they simply do not want Djokovic to win. This is plausible, but it fails to explain why there is such an apathy towards him at other tournaments as well; Djokovic was booed twice at Wimbledon in 2019, as well as in New York.

A better explanation is that there is a widespread negative perception of Djokovic’s attitude among the tennis community, a perception further justified in the final by his remarks to umpire Damien Dumusois following being penalised for a time violation whilst serving: “you made yourself famous, well done.” Djokovic does not fit into the narrative created by tennis fans to represent the modern era: a battle between Federer, with the precision of a Swiss watch, and Nadal, with the fighting spirit of a Spanish bull. The majority of fans have sought to identify with one of the two., creating a situation where many tennis fans refuse to consider Djokovic as being at the same comparable level, despite his stellar record.

The future of tennis

Djokovic’s victory at Melbourne Park means that the last 13 Grand Slam title have been won by the so-called “Big Three” of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. Stan Wawrinka’s victory at the 2016 US Open was the last major won by someone else. This poses the question of when the new guard of ‘next gen’ players will finally come through to break the dominance of the Big Three and convert their talent into Grand Slam titles. Whilst the stranglehold of the Big Three on the majors does appear complete, Thiem’s performance in the Australian Open, his third appearance in a Grand Slam final, does suggest that it is likely that he will be a future Grand Slam champion; with this, and Daniil Medvedev’s run to the final of the US Open last year, it appears that the breakthrough of the ‘Next gen’ is just on the horizon.

So, 2020 will be a keenly watched year of tennis as fans wait to see whether the ‘next gen’ are finally ready for the changing of the guard. Whether they succeed or not, the battle will ensure that this tennis season, as ever, will be a fascinating one.