Agitated and ailing, Novak Djokovic nonetheless won an eighth Australian Open title to beat his fellow Big Three members to the punch in one respect.
Chasing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most of his career, Djokovic became the first man in the Open Era to win a grand slam title in three decades by downing big-hitter Dominic Thiem 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 in an unforgettable three-hour, 59-minute final.
He has never lost a finale in Melbourne and has now tallied a 17th major overall to pull closer to Federer and Nadal.
“Obviously at this stage of my career, grand slams are the ones I value the most,” said Djokovic. “They are the ones I prioritize. Before the season starts I try to set my form, shape for these events where I can be at my prime tennis, mental and physical abilities.”
The elder pair will get their chances to equal the Serb’s three-decade accomplishment in 2020 but at the year’s first grand slam, he is unquestionably in a class of his own.
Apart from the impressive numbers, the final might be remembered, too, for Djokovic clashing with senior chair umpire Damien Dumusois as he served at 4-4 in the second set.
Given a time violation warning by Dumusois – Djokovic has long taken his time ahead of serves like Nadal – the Frenchman issued him another warning in the same game when he exceeded the 25-second limit.
That meant he was docked a first serve. The same thing happened to Nadal in last year’s US Open final, albeit with a different umpire.
Djokovic then tapped Dumusois on the shoe as he made his way to his chair.
Once seated, he told Dumusois: “Great job, man. You made yourself famous, well done.”
Dumusois was lenient in not penalizing Djokovic further for making contact with him, ensuring things didn’t escalate.
The last time Djokovic and Thiem met at a grand slam, the 32-year-old also lost his cool when given a time violation in the 2019 French Open semifinals.
“I thought that the second violation was not necessary,” said Djokovic. “The first one, fine, no problem. The second one, it’s just not necessary under the circumstances for a experienced chair umpire. I thought probably he could have reacted a little bit better in that situation.”
Whether he was rocked by Sunday’s incident or feeling something physically – factoring in, too, Thiem’s improved play – Djokovic waned on a nippy Melbourne evening and it felt like an upset was on the cards.
But Thiem, now 0-3 in grand slam finals, didn’t have any regrets.
“Of course, there were some small mistakes here and there, but they’re happening,” he said. “At the end it was a super close five-setter.”
Down 4-1 in the third, the trainer visited Djokovic. He later told reporters he felt dizzy and lost his energy.
He left the court with the doctor at the end of the set and once he returned, seemed completely re-energized. He additionally mostly put away the drop shot, which fluctuated in its success rate.
Fifth-ranked Thiem cracked at 3-4 to help Djokovic nab the fourth set and a considerable statistical edge. While Djokovic held a 30-10 record in fifth sets, Thiem was a mediocre 8-6.
The trend ultimately continued, Thiem erring to crucially concede serve at 1-2.
It was far from over, though, since Thiem manufactured two break points immediately.
And he had chances on both, erring on a forehand into the net with Djokovic in trouble and missing a backhand pass long down the line. The latter was more difficult but given Thiem’s propensity to hit flashy winners, he’d like the shot back.
Thiem hung on by delivering a potent serve on break point at 2-4, and it was then Djokovic’s turn to escape a jam, at 15-30.
There was no drama in the final game. Djokovic served it out to 15 when Thiem’s forehand went wide.
Djokovic gave an emotional speech when receiving his trophy, telling the crowd to “stick together” during tough times whilst paying tribute to his “mentor” Kobe Bryant.
“There were some devastating things that started 2020, with huge bushfires here in Australia, conflicts in parts of the world with people dying every day,” he said.
“One person that I considered close in my life, Kobe Bryant, passed away as well with his daughter.
“This is a reminder that we should stick together more than ever and be with our families. Stay close to the people who love you, that care about you.”
17 and counting
Djokovic still hasn’t lost a match since the year began.
Serbia triumphed in the inaugural ATP Cup and, maybe just as important, Djokovic received some of the most vocal fan support of his career. He has always wanted to be loved – Federer and Nadal surpass him on that front – and he got his wish.
“It played a role and a factor” in Djokovic’s Australian summer, his coach Marian Vajda told CNN. “It’s an engine.”
He seemed to slightly edge the support early in the final, with those on Rod Laver Arena subsequently getting behind Thiem when he fell behind 4-1.
Djokovic recently downplayed the importance of becoming the men’s all-time grand slam leader but he’d no doubt still like to get there. He trails Nadal by two and Federer by three.
As a bonus, he will usurp Nadal as the world No. 1 in the rankings come Monday.
With Djokovic, Nadal and Federer winning the previous 12 majors, Thiem’s task was always going to be extremely difficult.
“These guys brought tennis to a complete new level,” said Thiem. “They also brought me probably to a much better level. Of course, it would be or it was easier for sure in a different era to win big titles. That’s 100%.
“But I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level. I really hope also that I win my maiden slam when they’re still around because it just counts more.”
He spent an intense four hours on court in the quarterfinals against Nadal and endured an emotional rollercoaster against Alexander “Sascha” Zverev in the last four.
Entering the final having played an average of one hour more than Djokovic might have contributed to the result, no matter if the Austrian is considered one of the fittest players on the tour. He gestured, too, that he felt like vomiting in his semifinal.
“I think I’ve rarely felt physically that tired, especially now after all the tension’s gone,” said Thiem. “I played an unbelievable intense match against Rafa, such an intense match against Sascha in the semis. Today again I think almost over four hours. I think that was very demanding.
“Of course, I just feel a lot of emptiness right now.”
All three of Thiem’s grand slam defeats have come at the hands of the all conquering Big Three. In Melbourne, no one in the men’s game has been better than Djokovic.