This Australian Open was just what Novak Djokovic needed

MELBOURNE, Australia — The smile on Novak Djokovic‘s face after smashing an overhead backhand volley previous Daniil Medvedev to secure a record ninth Australian Open title on Sunday wasn’t one in all pure pleasure and even contentment. It was reduction.

As the “Nole, Nole, Nole” chant echoed round Rod Laver Arena, Djokovic dropped his racket and fell to the court docket, soaking in his unprecedented achievement at Melbourne Park. The world No. 1 crushed Medvedev — a person who entered Sunday’s ultimate using a 20-match successful streak — 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, in beneath two hours, clinching his 18th main title to shut inside two Slam triumphs of his best rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

But Djokovic’s win over the Russian did way more than tighten the race for probably the most males’s main titles; it additionally put a full cease on a wretched 12 months for Djokovic, on and off the court docket.

After successful the Australian Open final February, giving him main trophy No. 17, it appeared Djokovic was on his technique to breaking maybe probably the most mentioned report in modern-day sports activities.

“At this stage of my career, Grand Slams are the ones I value most,” Djokovic declared after his triumph in Melbourne final yr. “There are a lot of stats that I am obviously proud of, [but] Grand Slams are why I’m still competing.”

Djokovic hoped final yr’s victory Down Under would “set the tone for the rest of the year,” however issues did not unfold as he hoped. His previous yr has been a combination of dangerous luck and questionable choices that quickly derailed his pursuit of the best tennis legacy of all.

This robust stretch started shortly after final yr’s Australian Open celebrations. The world was quickly grappling with COVID-19, which was spreading quickly. Sports got here to a halt.

The French Open, initially slated for May, was postponed till October, after the US Open, whereas Wimbledon was canceled. Suddenly, there have been just two Slams for the in-form Djokovic to contest in 2020: Roland Garros, the place Nadal has reigned supreme over his profession, and the US Open. In addition, nearly each ATP occasion scheduled between March and August was canceled.

With tennis in a five-month hiatus, Djokovic proposed the concept of an exhibition-style match in his residence area of the Balkans between June and July. The ATP greenlit the concept, dubbing it the Adria Tour.

“Unlike many other players, I was able to train almost every day because we resided in a house with a tennis court,” Djokovic stated at his residence in Serbia when the tour was introduced. “I refrained from posting clips on social networks because I didn’t want to infuriate other players.”

Regardless, it did not take lengthy for the occasion to come back beneath heavy criticism. Despite the worldwide pandemic, social distancing protocols have been missing on the Adria Tour venues, with 1000’s of followers seen with out face masks. Even gamers have been interacting with one another, ignoring well being recommendation to keep away from all bodily contact.

During the tour, a video circulated exhibiting Djokovic and a bunch of different tennis stars partying shirtless on the Lafayette Cuisine Cabaret Club in Belgrade. Several days later, Djokovic, on the time the president of the ATP Player Council, introduced he and spouse Jelena had contracted COVID-19. The the rest of the Adria Tour was promptly canceled.

“Boneheaded decision to go ahead with this ‘exhibition,'” Australian rival Nick Kyrgios tweeted on the time. “But that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. Unfortunately, when [Djokovic] was supposed to show some leadership and humility, he went missing.”

One former coach of Grand Slam champions, who requested to not be recognized, informed ESPN, “The big question in my mind is: Was this ignorance or arrogance on the part of Djokovic?”

A couple of months later, Djokovic arrived in New York because the overwhelming favourite to win his fourth US Open. With Federer and Nadal each absent, Djokovic was one in all just three Grand Slam champions in the complete males’s draw, together with Andy Murray and Marin Cilic. It was Djokovic’s match to lose and bookmakers agreed, putting in him as an odds-on favourite for the title.

But as a substitute of a comparatively stress-free fortnight at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic rapidly turned embroiled in drama and controversy.

Before a ball was even struck, the Serbian got here beneath hearth for suggesting he could not take part within the match, given COVID-19 protocols would restrict his on-court entourage to just one member.

“No one has been able to play sanctioned events or make money since February and here we have the top player in the world saying only being able to bring one person will be too difficult,” American Danielle Collins stated. “It’s easy to turn down the US Open when someone’s made nearly $150 million throughout their career.”

Djokovic ended up enjoying, although he stated he was battling persistent neck stiffness within the lead-up to the occasion. It did not seem to hamper him too considerably till he met Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta within the fourth spherical, which turned out to be probably the most notorious tennis match of 2020.

After having his serve damaged by Carreno Busta within the eleventh sport of the opening set and falling behind 5-6, a pissed off Djokovic took a spare ball out of his pocket and struck it firmly towards the again of the court docket, the place it hit a linesperson within the throat. It wasn’t intentional, as an apologetic Djokovic instantly raised his arm and rushed over to help, nevertheless it left match referee Soeren Friemel with little selection however to disqualify the No. 1 seed.

“Based on the facts that the ball was hit angrily, recklessly; that it went straight at the line umpire’s throat, the decision was made that Novak had to be defaulted,” Friemel defined.

Djokovic was fined the $250,000 prize cash he had gained for reaching the final 16 and was stripped of his rating factors earned on the match. But little doubt the larger blow for him was that he would not be including to his Grand Slam tally.

A couple of weeks later, Djokovic reached the French Open ultimate in Paris, the place he was comprehensively overwhelmed 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 by clay-court grasp Nadal. Suddenly, Federer and Nadal have been tied at 20 Slams, whereas Djokovic remained caught at 17.

The 2021 Australian Open provided Djokovic an opportunity to hit the reset button — a return to the court docket on which he had gained a report eight titles.

The considered a ninth title appeared practically not possible just 9 days in the past, when Djokovic appeared to noticeably injure himself after slipping on the white “MELBOURNE” lettering behind the Rod Laver Arena baseline in his third-round match in opposition to American Taylor Fritz. Djokovic’s well being turned the largest speaking level of the match.

But not even an stomach muscle tear may cease him from creating extra historical past in Australia.

“He needed this victory so badly,” Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, stated. “He was going through a lot especially after last year, the US Open and a pretty poor final at Roland Garros.”

Had Djokovic misplaced in Melbourne, he would have remained three majors behind Federer and Nadal, with the Spaniard’s favored French Open forward in June. To merely tie the report, Djokovic would wish to have carried out what no man has managed earlier than: win not less than three majors after his thirty fourth birthday, which is able to arrive in May.

But his Australian Open win now places him nearer than ever. Djokovic is the youngest of the trio, and this ninth Australian Open title may very well be the catalyst for him happening to attain the record-breaking feat.

It exhibits that, for Djokovic, there’s actually no place like Melbourne — particularly after a yr of setbacks. This match seems to be just what he needed.

“I would like to thank Rod Laver Arena. I love you each year more and more,” Djokovic stated Sunday. “The more I win, the better I feel coming back each year. The love affair keeps going.”

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