Australian Open 2021 - Novak Djokovic's record up there with Rafael Nadal at the French Open
Novak Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles, but does the world No 1 get the credit he deserves for his success in Melbourne? The 33-year-old clinched his 18th Grand Slam with victory over Daniil Medvedev in Sunday's final and is now only two behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all-time standings for major wins.
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Djokovic’s Australian Open success should sit between the two.
Since winning the tournament for the first time in 2008, Djokovic has only lost four matches in Melbourne – against Andy Roddick and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals in 2009 and 2010 and then to Denis Istomin and Chung Hyeon in 2017 and 2018. It's not quite at Nadal’s level of near-utter dominance at the French Open, where he has only ever lost three times, but clay is more of a specialist surface than hard courts, and Nadal is the ultimate specialist on it.
Highlights: Djokovic routs Medvedev to seal ninth title in Melbourne
Nobody has dominated a hard-court Grand Slam like Djokovic in Melbourne.
Federer, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors all won the US Open five times while only three other men in the Open era – Federer, Andre Agassi and Mats Wilander – have won the Australian Open more than twice.
There’s a case to be made that the level of competition at the Australian Open should be the hardest among all four Grand Slams, given it comes at the start of the season when everyone should be healthy (although quarantine impacted things this year) and every player has had an equal chance to prepare in the best possible way during the off-season.
But Djokovic’s off-season work is clearly putting him ahead of the rest. He hasn’t just won the Australian Open in recent years, he has completely made it his own.
He has won all nine Australian Open finals he has been in and in his last five he has only dropped three sets – two of which were against Dominic Thiem last year. This year he overcame the adversity of an abdominal injury in the third round to produce some of his best tennis in the latter stages of the tournament, arguably saving the best for the final when he destroyed Daniil Medvedev.
As Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander put it, Djokovic has made Rod Laver Arena his “living room”.
"When you watch Novak play at the Australian Open, it looks as difficult to beat him here as it does to beat Rafa Nadal at Roland-Garros. The last two matches were faultless – he just didn’t make any mistakes in the semi-finals or the final.
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"It shouldn’t be because it’s a faster court, it should be much more difficult, but he looks so solid, so confident, and once he gets into the lead I don’t know what you have to do.”
Djokovic said early in the tournament that the courts were like “ice” and were the fastest he had played on in 15 years at the Australian Open. Yet not only was nobody able to take advantage of the conditions to beat Djokovic, but he tailored his own game to make the most of them, including firing down a tournament-high 103 aces.
Then in the final, with two days of preparation, he adapted further to tactically stifle Medvedev, who was on a 20-match winning streak heading into the match. It was only three months ago that the Russian outplayed Djokovic in a straight-sets win at the ATP Finals, but this was an entirely different contest. Djokovic pulled his opponent around the court, including several times to the net, where Medvedev won eight of 13 points, and the Russian grew increasingly frustrated as the match wore on.
It was a masterclass, one of Djokovic’s most complete performances in his nine Australian Open finals, and a strong reminder that despite Thiem’s breakthrough at the US Open last year, there is still a gap between Djokovic, Nadal, and the rest at Grand Slams.
Asked about the challenge of beating Djokovic in the Australian Open final, Medvedev couldn’t avoid the straight answer. “Probably all the nine times he was better than his opponent.”
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Just as Nadal has been so superior to the competition in Paris and Federer ruled Wimbledon for a 10-year spell, Djokovic has become almost unbeatable at the Australian Open. The difficulty of his latest victory should not be underrated either. The 33-year-old faced criticism before the tournament for his attempts to improve quarantine conditions for players and then came under further fire when it was suggested that he overplayed his injury against Fritz, having seemed to have been on the verge of retiring.
“It has been emotionally one of the toughest tournaments I’ve ever had in my life,” admitted Djokovic after the final.
He has now more history in his sights with Nadal and Federer just two Grand Slams ahead on 20 in the all-time standings.
“Everyone has their own journey and their own way of making history,” said Djokovic after winning his 18th major. “They've made history already. They made a tremendous mark in our sport. I'm trying to build that and develop that myself in a very unique, authentic way that is suitable to me.”
If Djokovic does pass Nadal and Federer then it would be fitting for him to do it at the Australian Open, perhaps with a 10th or 11th title. Such a number might have seemed unthinkable a few years ago, but as Djokovic said after his latest win, “the love affair keeps going”. And it’s showing no signs of slowing.