WASHINGTON, February 4, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
On a perfect night for tennis in Melbourne, with clear skies and an open roof in Rod Laver Arena, Novak Djokovic won his seventeenth Grand Slam singles title with a five-set victory over Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open men’s singles final Sunday. Once again, Djokovic proved himself unconquerable. He remains hungry and driven.
Djokovic’s 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph that lasted four hours rewarded him with his eighth Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy and returned the Serbian to No. 1 in the world rankings.
“I’ve had (the) privilege to win this big tournament for eight times,” said Djokovic, 32, during his post-match press conference that didn’t start until the early hours of Monday morning. “To start off the season with a Grand Slam win significantly boosts your confidence and your expectations are quite high for the rest of the season. But whatever happens, this season is already successful.”
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) February 3, 2020
Djokovic arrived in Melbourne a fortnight ago after he won all of his singles matches and contributed significantly to Serbia’s triumph in the inaugural ATP Cup team title in Sydney. In the year’s first Grand Slam, which took place amid difficult circumstances from the blazing bushfires that blanketed much of southeastern Australia, the second-seeded Djokovic began a run of good form by dropping just one set before the final. En route, he beat No. 14 seed Diego Schwartzman in the fourth round, No. 32 seed Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals and No. 3 seed Roger Federer in a much-anticipated semifinal – all in straight sets – before the 26-year old Thiem, whom New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey characterized as one “with thunder in his ground strokes and highlights in his dark hair,” pushed him to five sets in the title match.
Although Thiem had won four of five previous matches against Djokovic – and built a two-sets-to-one lead Sunday thanks to stringing together six straight games at one point – he hadn’t beaten him on an outdoor hard court. This time, although No. 4 seed Thiem had some chances – especially when Djokovic began to struggle with both his consistency as well as his level of energy – the Austrian just couldn’t reach the finish line in time.
Thiem was broken in the third game of the decisive set and never quite recovered. His last chance to pull even came as Djokovic served at 4-3, 15-30. Then, the Serbian won the next three points to hold serve and the end drew nearer.
On this memorable night and in this particular final, Djokovic was at times defiant. To wit, twice he was cited for time violations. But always, Djokovic was tenacious – especially in long rallies – as he gutted out his victory over Thiem by serving nine aces and hitting 46 winners.
With his latest major title, Djokovic moved to within three of Federer, the all-time leader with 20 Grand Slam titles, and he’s now two behind Rafael Nadal’s 19. Once again, the old guard fended off the new blood. However, one thing’s certain: Thiem proved he’s more than just a clay-court specialist. He can play heroically on hard courts. After all, Thiem beat No. 29 seed Taylor Fritz, No. 10 seed Gaël Monfils, top seed Nadal and No. 7 seed Alexander Zverev in his four matches leading up to Sunday’s final against Djokovic. Thiem also spent six hours more than Djokovic on court throughout the tournament.
Huge congrats to Novak, an unreal achievement,” said Thiem, gracious in his remarks during the trophy ceremony. “You have helped to raise the level, and I’m proud and happy I can compete in this time and period of tennis.”
When it was Djokovic’s turn to address the crowd, he remarked: “This is definitely my favorite court, my favorite stadium in the world, and I’m blessed to hold this trophy once again.”
Then, looking toward Thiem as he spoke in a complimentary tone of voice, Djokovic said: “I would like to congratulate Dominic on an amazing tournament. It wasn’t meant to be tonight. But you were very close to winning.
“You definitely have a lot more time in your career and I’m sure you’ll get more than one Grand Slam trophy in your career.”
Thiem, who was attempting to become the first new major winner since Marin Cilic won the 2014 US Open, fell short in a Grand Slam final for the third time in his young professional career. His Australian Open set back followed two previous defeats against Nadal in the finals of the 2018 and 2019 French Open.
“I think there’s not much to change,” Thiem said during his final Melbourne press conference. “In the last two sets, I definitely gave everything I had. Novak is part of three guys who are by far the best players ever who played tennis. If you play a Grand Slam final against him, it’s always going to be a match where very small details are deciding.
“… It’s unique in sports history that the three best players by far are playing in the same era,” Thiem acknowledged. “That’s what makes it very, very difficult for players to break through.”
Indeed, Djokovic, along with Federer, 38, and Nadal, 33 – The Big Three of men’s tennis – have combined to win the past 13 majors. One has to go back to Stan Wawrinka’s 2016 US Open victory to find a Grand Slam winner other than Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. Wawrinka and Andy Murray, with three Grand Slams apiece, are the next best active players behind the Big Three. For sure, Djokovic isn’t quite ready to rest on his laurels. Not now, anyway.
“Grand Slams are one of the main reasons why I am still competing and still playing full season, trying to obviously get the historic No. 1. That’s the other big goal,” Djokovic said. “I put myself in this position that is really good at the moment. I’m super happy with the way I started the season. It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the year.”
What they’re saying
Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who commented on the Djokovic-Thiem final for ESPN, broadcast in North America: “Admirable effort by both guys. This guy (Djokovic) weathering a storm. Whatever was going on in his head or his body, he figured out a way to get it done. That’s why he’s an all-time great champion.”
What they’re writing
Louisa Thomas, a contributing writer for The New Yorker from “Novak Djokovic Solves the Mind-Body Problem to Win the Australian Open”: “For the first one and a half sets of the Australian Open men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem, Djokovic was playing tennis about as well as it could be played. There are players who are more creative, more spectacular, and there are those who hit a heavier ball (Thiem is one of them). But no one on tour can apply a stranglehold quite like Djokovic. His ground strokes were perfectly calibrated, his serve devastating, his drop shot dying on the bounce. Thiem, who had spent six hours more than Djokovic on the court during the tournament, was never allowed to take the initiative.”
What they’re tweeting
Hall of Fame great Rod Laver: “Congratulations @DjokerNole, champions always find a way and you did again tonight. It was a magnificent final. Dominic, your time will come make no mistake. Keep fighting hard, you’re a real star.“
By the numbers
• With Novak Djokovic returned to the ATP No. 1 ranking this week, it’s worth noting that since February 2, 2004, only Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have been No. 1.
• Since turning 30, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have both won five Grand Slams singles titles. Roger Federer, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall follow with four each.
• Novak Djokovic is 9-1 in Grand Slam finals since Wimbledon 2015. On Sunday, he won a career-best fifth straight Grand Slam final that he’s appeared in.