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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Right Now There Is No Answer To Novak Djokovic

Illustration for article titled Right Now There Is No Answer To Novak Djokovic
Photo: Quinn Rooney (Getty)

Novak Djokovic heaped pre-match praise on his final Australian Open opponent, because it was a deeply familiar one. “Nadal has historically throughout my life and career been the greatest rival that I ever played against on all the surfaces,” he said of their 52-match tug-of-war, which had split 27-25 in his favor. “Some matches that we had against each other were a great turning point in my career. I feel they have made me rethink my game.”


He’s correct, of course. He and Rafael Nadal elevate each other, and the rally itself, to unseen heights. And they seemed ready to do it again. Here in the championship final was that “greatest rival,” serving unbreakably, cruising through the draw like he never has on hardcourt, and coming off two full days of rest—and still Djokovic undid him, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, for his third straight major title. This is Novak Djokovic’s world now, and no one, not even his biggest threat, can find the oxygen to live in it.

The stakes might’ve gotten to Nadal. He looked cagey through the first hour: misfiring on the forehand, fumbling the ball during his sacred pre-toss ritual, settling for a chip return off a mild second serve, even whiffing on a groundstroke. These were all uncharacteristic signs of frazzle from a dude who seemingly burst out of the womb and sprinted right back to the baseline, dialed in to go three sets. Djokovic leapt ahead and won 13 of first 14 points to start out, and the tone of this final didn’t materially change after that.

Four minutes into the match, he was leaping and nailing backhand winners.

Djokovic took the first set after losing just one point on his serve, coolly absorbing Rafa’s best stuff.

How do you get any traction against a guy playing like that? Against 99 percent of the tour, Rafa doesn’t need to even ask that question. The answer is clear. Throughout his career, and especially in this tournament, Nadal’s forehand has been the bully-ball supreme. With nice pace and demented topspin, it’s the epitome of a “heavy” ball—an opponent feels they’ve been tasked with batting back a watermelon. When playing a righty, Rafa’s M.O. is to bludgeon that forehand crosscourt right into the opponent’s backhand, typically the weaker wing, to elicit a weak response. But what makes his matchup with Djokovic so remarkable is the fact that the Serb’s backhand couldn’t have been more better designed to hold up to this abuse. At 6-foot-2 Djokovic has enough height that he’s not struggling with the high bounce, the flexibility to hit it cleanly at uncomfortable angles, and a second hand on the racket that affords him some added stability and power. (Compare to Federer, who, aside from that 2017 godly streak when he was able to half-volley everything off his shoelaces, has struggled with Rafa’s forehand, bane of the one-hander.) It also helps Djokovic’s cause to possess, more broadly, one of the best two-handers ever, and certainly the best ever out of defensive positions, where his Gumby joints let him produce scary pop and depth at the very end of his range.

As it turned out, Djokovic rarely even had to be on the defensive in this match. The Nadal forehand was a plaything to him.

This is how many good shots Rafa would have to line up consecutively to actually break through the defenses and earn a winner of his own, plus a Djokovic thumbs-up of approval:

That level proved unsustainable. Rafa lost the second set, too, having won just five points on Djokovic’s serve. In the third, he would manage just four more. With no real stress in his service games, confident that he would prevail in any neutral rally, Djokovic started to have a little fun. This is an absolutely unjust response when someone hits a much better drop shot than you:

Djokovic hit three drop shots in that game and was looking loose and playful to the end, even head-butting a stray ball in the final game of the match, never veering into his mad-eyed, shirt-yanking mood. Nadal is rarely on the receiving end of such breezy destruction. After the match, a reporter drew a parallel to the straight sets rout that Nadal delivered to Stefanos Tsitsipas in their semifinal. The Spaniard responded with good humor and a lot of honesty:

[Tsitsipas] don’t have been destroyed enough times to know that that can happen on a tennis court. I am not new on this. I know these kind of things happens. Even to the best players of the history happened. I don’t say I have been destroyed. I have been playing against a player that was at the highest level possible, in my opinion, tonight.

Maybe Djokovic was a player at the highest level possible. Going for 34 winners and nine unforced errors against Rafael Nadal in a major final would seem to satisfy that criteria. Based on what he’s done before, though, it certainly feels as if he still has a higher gear. That might not matter if no one on tour is capable of pushing him to it.

After claiming his record seventh Australian Open, these hard courts are all his. Later this season, he will come for Rafa’s clay, and then Federer’s grass. With his total haul of majors rising to 15, those players’ sums of 17 and 20 don’t feel particularly safe, either. This time last year Djokovic was coming off elbow surgery, staggering through the hard court season, racking up three straight losses. Now he’s eaten up three straight majors. Every surface of the earth belongs to Novak Djokovic, all over again. All anyone else can do is wait.