Every Grand Slam for the past...well, the years are getting innumerable now, and barely even fathomable, given the unseen greatness and longevity of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Fans keep asking: “Will this be the time?” That is, the time someone else breaks through, someone else rises to the level of the three best players the game has seen, even for just two weeks. They’re waiting for something, anything, to signal that another player will be a constant threat.
The question became more of a plea a few years ago at least. Now it’s just a lament.
Novak Djokovic railroaded Daniil Medvedev in the Aussie Open Final this morning, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. The last two sets were not just crushing to Medvedev, but perhaps to the wider tennis world. Which isn’t fair to Djokovic, who has always been soundtracked by the Empirical March in the minds of tennis fans than the more heroic strings of Federer and Nadal for myriad reasons, but whose greatness can be questioned no more. Medvedev was seen as the best hope to not just beat one of the triumvirate to win a Grand Slam but to also stick around and eventually lead the charge of the next generation. Since the run-up to the 2019 US Open, few could match his overall record. He had won 20 straight matches heading into this final. He had pushed Nadal to the brink in the 2019 US Open final. He looked primed for the big stage.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Medvedev’s chances was that he was one of the few who had shown a willingness to suffer with either Nadal and Djokovic. Beating Federer three out of five sets has always been the easier task, because his game goes off the boil easier, but mostly because even if he’s playing well, he doesn’t require you to be out there for four hours slogging through long rallies and digging deep to just win a point. Big hitters have been able to take Fed out of the equation in matches. They just hit it past him, when everything goes right.
You can’t do that to either Nadal or Djokovic, Not for four or five sets anyway. They get to everything, make you hit an extra ball, or two, or three every point. There is no hitting it past them. They dig out offensive shots from defensive positions, which only causes opponents’ belief and confidence to splatter onto the court. Eventually everyone’s will breaks, and their form follows. They go for too much, to try and end the madness and save themselves the pain of having to endure yet another 15- to 20-shot rally just to get air. Or they simply wilt.
Medvedev also plays that way, or can, and does that to opponents himself. With Djokovic’s less-than-immovable form of this tournament, the thought was this could be a classic.
It was anything but. Djokovic had a clear plan from the outset of not just moving Medvedev side-to-side but up and down as well, repeatedly bringing him up into the court where Medvedev doesn’t want to be. Not being able to close out points from up in the court only extended things and had him back-peddling, which is the last thing you want against Djokovic.
Djokovic started picking on the more inconsistent forehand of Medvedev as the match went on until it became not much more than a pool noodle in the wind. And as he always does as the greatest returner in the sport’s history, he simply chewed up Medvedev’s second serve and spit it out.
And Djokovic, along with the other two celestial beings, has made concessions to their age and changed or improved parts of their games so they don’t have to rely on aging legs. Both Djokovic and Nadal have enhanced their serves to get more easy points (Djokovic had 103 aces over the course of the tournament). Both are much better than they get credit for at net, where they can end points quicker (Djokovic on 16-of-18 points when he came in during the final).
Medvedev meanwhile had no counter moves, if he even had a Plan A, and consistently moved behind the baseline instead of in front of it, which only allowed Djokovic to call the shots more.
It’s a ninth Australian Open for Djokovic, and an 18th grand-slam overall. He’s the best hard-court player in the world and the best grass-court one too. And the wait goes on for a different name.
Even in a tournament that had an unusual build, with both Nadal and Djokovic dealing with injuries, the result ends up the same. Maybe age will affect Djokovic and/or Nadal differently than it did Federer, as both of their games are more physically demanding. Yet they adjust and evolve. Federer was in a Wimbledon final at 38. Which means it might still be some years before Djokovic or Nadal are simply unable to be what they are now. Which means yet another generation beneath them will miss the bus.
Years ago, it was the generation of Dmitrov, Tsonga, Del Potro, and Cilic who might break up the triopoly. They’re all out of the game now or in their 30s (though to be fair to Del Potro it was his body that let him down). Now it’s Thiem, Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev. Thiem was able to claim one when Nadal and Federer didn’t show up and Djokovic got himself tossed from the US Open. Tsitsipas was able to topple Nadal at this tournament, but had nothing left and was dismissed derisively by Medvedev.
And they all feel like one-offs. They might get a win here or there, but who’s going to be able to go through two of them in a Grand Slam? Thiem has beaten Djokovic at the French Open, but then couldn’t find any answers in the final against Nadal (then again, no one other than Djokovic once and some Swedish nutcase have). Zverev seems to specialize in fantastic failure.
The question of who will do it keeps getting asked. The answer gets clearer and clearer. Nobody.