The story, fair or not, was that Novak Djokovic quit because it was too hot.
Back in 2009, when Djokovic first defended an Australian Open title, he faced Andy Roddick in the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park. It was indeed hot, 37 Celsius with the court blistering underfoot.
By the fourth set, Djokovic had had enough. He was 6-7 6-4 6-2 2-1 down when he retired due to “heat illness”. He gave up the chance to play Roger Federer in the semi-finals, a match-up he’d won the previous year en route to his maiden Grand Slam title.
Djokovic insisted that he genuinely could not continue. Problem was, it was not the first sickie he’d thrown; it was his fourth retirement in Grand Slams by age 21. At that stage, Federer had played 775 professional matches without a single retirement; by now, he’s played 1,511 without blemish.
Soft superstar. Sick-note specialist. Djokovic was fast gaining an unwanted reputation. Roddick cut him some slack after the 2009 match but had mocked Djokovic at the previous year’s US Open, when asked which ankle the Serbian had injured before their upcoming clash.
“Isn’t it both of them? And a back and a hip? And a cramp, bird flu, anthrax, SARS, a common cough and cold,” Roddick said. Djokovic was furious.
How things have changed.
Djokovic now has nine Australian Open titles and 18 Grand Slams. He just won his second three-peat in Melbourne, a feat that barely registered among so many others.
He is developing a habit of prevailing through pain and adversity. On this Aussie odyssey, he overcame a torn abdominal muscle, suffered midway through a five-setter against Taylor Fritz, and a quarantine ‘requests’ controversy.
Roddick, who won his lone major at the 2003 US Open, led tributes to Djokovic after his latest Melbourne Park masterclass. One could not have imagined such a mark of respect a decade ago. Djokovic is now 9-0 in Australian Open finals, with five-set triumphs over iron horses Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem to his credit.
Once fragile, now near invincible. He’s won eight of the past 11 Australian Opens. He is a man reinvented, in truth if not always public perception.
This time, Djokovic broke through the pain barrier; though past indiscretions perhaps fuelled doubts over the legitimacy of his injury. So too his lingering habit of seeming down and out in certain matches, only to suddenly explode back into form.
No such thing happened against Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s Open final. His body well enough, Djokovic survived a tough first set then annihilated the durable Russian, making a mockery of his rival’s vaunted 20-match winning streak.
“I know there’s been a lot of speculations, people questioning whether I’m injured, how can I recover so quickly, it’s impossible to do that. I get it,” Djokovic said.
“I mean, look, everyone is entitled for their own opinion, and everybody has the freedom and the right to say what they want, criticise others. I just felt like it was a bit unfair at times. But hey, it’s not the first nor the last time.
“The pain was at the level that was bearable for me. I just accepted the fact that I’m going to have to play with the pain.”
It’s a far cry from the past. Federer, back in 2009, eviscerated Djokovic for quitting against Roddick.
“Well, I mean it’s happened before so I mean it’s not the guy who’s never given up in his career. So that’s kind of disappointing to see; you’ve got two top guys playing and you give up,” Federer said.
“I mean, he gave up against me in Monaco last year because of sore throat, yes. Those are kind of things you wonder about.”
Federer will have watched Djokovic destroy Medvedev on Sunday night, far removed from Melbourne after skipping the tournament. He will know his advantage over Djokovic in the Grand Slam race is probably to be short-lived. So long considered the greatest of all time, Federer has already been tied by Nadal and Djokovic is looming.
The Swiss legend will return to the court next month in Doha but it seems likely, finally, that his time winning majors is over. Federer is 39 and has not won a Slam since the 2018 Australian Open, leaving him on 20.
Djokovic, barring career-ending mishap, will surely surpass Federer’s tally. That leaves Nadal, also on 20 but hot favourite to add a 21st at the French Open in May-June.
Nadal, incidentally, was Djokovic’s opponent for two of those four early retirements at Grand Slams. Djokovic quit a Roland Garros quarter-final with breathing difficulties, two sets down, and a Wimbledon semi in the third set due to an infected blister. Djokovic has since beaten him in a pair of Australian Open finals, a 2012 epic and a 2020 thumping.
Nadal would now start as an underdog against Djokovic at three of the four majors; all bar the French Open. The mighty Spaniard was thumped in straight sets by the Serbian in last year’s Australian Open final and trails 29-27 in their career ledger; though Nadal leads 11-5 at Grand Slams and 5-4 in Slam finals (three French Opens and two US Opens).
Nadal is 34, turning 35 in June. Djokovic is 33, turning 34 in May. A one-year advantage, coupled with the extra damage that Nadal’s body has sustained across the journey.
Both men should, by logic, be waning by now but that’s simply not the case. Both, though, are more consciously targeting Grand Slams, tailoring their calendars specifically rather than worrying about the ATP Tour’s weekly cut and thrust.
Djokovic has unofficially achieved his other major aim. He will surpass Federer’s record of 310 weeks as world No.1, thanks to his latest Australian Open victory. Now it’s the Slams record or bust.
“Roger and Rafa inspire me,” Djokovic said on Sunday night, dubbing the trio “The Three Knights of Tennis” after Medvedev branded them “cyborgs”.
“I think as long as they go [on playing], I’ll go.
“I think in a way it’s, like, a race who plays tennis more, I guess, and who wins more. It’s a competition between us in all areas. But I think that’s the very reason why we are who we are, because we do drive each other, we motivate each other, we push each other to the limit.
“Roger, Rafa, myself are still there for a reason. We don’t want to hand it to them [younger players] and we don’t want to allow them to win Slams. I think that’s something that is very clear. Whether you communicate that message or not, we are definitely sending that vibe out there. I’m sticking to that.
“Whether I think about winning more Slams and breaking records – of course. Of course, I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies.”
Djokovic’s coach, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, said that Nadal was certain to advance the record. He said that Djokovic had needed his Australian Open victory “badly” to stay within striking distance and also for peace of mind, after he was disqualified from last year’s US Open for hitting a line judge with a ball, then thumped by Nadal in the French Open final.
“He wants to win. He wants to break the records. He wants to perform and compete like he did. Sure, there was a goal from the first moment we step in Australia, and he executed [Sunday] perfectly,” Ivanisevic said.
“This is what you train for. This is what you live for, for the matches like this. This is great, No.18. Now the chase is beginning. The chase is there and it’s great. A lot of confidence.
“He needed because, you know, when you play, New York disappointment, French, really bad final, he needed this to just keep going in his mind. He is a champion. He always find was the way how to perform the best.
“He did it here, especially with all this crazy things what was happening. First you have spectators, then suddenly you have no spectators. Atmosphere for two matches was like in a funeral, with these birds. You know, I thought I was in a cemetery, you know. Injury, but he showed again how strong and tough he is in the head and prove everybody wrong.
“If he didn’t win one, you know, he’s getting older and he needed [to win], if he wants to break the record, if he want to catch Roger and Rafa. Honestly, Rafa is going to win one more, maybe two for sure, French Opens. You need to keep going, winning. Novak is favorite in Wimbledon and US Open.”
Ivanisevic said that the ‘Big Three’ had constantly forced each other to improve and revamp their games. Djokovic’s serve was exceptional in his successful pursuit of this Australian Open; he led the tournament for aces, despite not boasting an especially powerful delivery.
Just how far the Slam record is pushed and who ends up on top, who knows. Nadal missed the chance to directly challenge Djokovic in Melbourne, falling to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals.
“You don’t know where is the end of these guys. This is a good question,” Ivanisevic said.
“They are unbelievable. They surprise me every day. Rafa for sure is going to win one [more Slam], I hope not two, but I give him one. Who knows. They’re unbelievable.
“They producing better and better tennis. Every time when you think they gone, the young guns are coming, they are here but these guys are better, one step better in the finals.
“I don’t know where is the end. Maybe they’re going to overpass Margaret Court (24 Slams) and Serena [Williams, 23 Slams], maybe not. But it’s amazing what they doing on the court. It’s amazing how they perform on the big matches.
“I’m waiting for Roger to come back. It’s going to be more interesting to see what’s going to happen in French and Wimbledon. Is just great. The race is there. Who knows.
“I said couple years ago Rafa and Novak, they going to overtake Roger, both of them. I still believe that. I still think so.”
While Djokovic is now an undisputed legend of tennis and his toughness should be beyond reproach, his past history of match retirements could potentially come back to bite him.
After he retired from the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal went on to win the tournament.
When he retired from the 2019 US Open, Nadal went on to win again. Last year in New York, with Nadal absent, Djokovic had the tournament at his mercy before his errant whack at the line judge and another Slam went begging.
Such is the tightness of the Big Three race. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 58 of the past 71 Grand Slams, dating back to Federer’s first title at Wimbledon 2003.
Any missed opportunity almost invariably hands an advantage to a fellow Big Three member. In the latter stages of their careers, the coveted Greatest Of All Time mantle is now truly there to be won or lost.
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