Novak Djokovic: Where does the Australian Open champ go from here?
As Novak Djokovic reached out and connected his racket to the ball that was sailing over his head, his back was to his opponent.
But as his reversed overhead smash secured the point that would win his ninth Australian Open title, his only intention then was to maintain looking forward.
The Serbian world no.1 continued his dominance of Melbourne last Sunday with a crushing defeat of the much-fancied Russian Daniil Medvedev.
It’s a telling consequence of such a one-sided final - much to the surprise of many a tennis expert - that the superb BBC Five Live coverage had blocked out its schedule until at least 11:30 am UK time. Djokovic was performing his ‘heart-throwing’ celebration to the adoring Rod Laver Arena by 10:39 am.
The win capped off an eventful Australian campaign by Djokovic that included quarantine, disputes with the Victorian government, bad blood with Nick Kyrgios and an abdominal injury that still invites questions on its severity after he faced exiting the first Grand Slam of the year at the third-round stage against American Taylor Fritz.
But as always, he fought back from the brink, found a way to win tennis points and only dropped two more sets for the rest of the tournament.
In winning, Djokovic surpasses Roger Federer’s record of 310 weeks spent as the men’s world no.1. An accolade he has long coveted. And his attention now turns to the race to end his career with the most Slams, epically slogging it out with two other legends of the sport, Federer and Spanish world no.2 Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic now sits on 18 Grand Slam titles, two behind his ‘Big Three’ rivals.
But is he now favourite to win that race thanks to changes he’s made to his game in the last few years?
Improving the Serve
One somewhat surprising statistic to come out of the Australian Open was Djokovic ending the tournament as the leading ace maker. In his second-round victory over Frances Tiafoe, he clocked up a personal best of 26 aces. In terms of ace rate (percentage of first serves that were aces), his victory over Tiafoe was his third-best serving performance ever at the Australian Open, where he has now won 77 matches. Astonishingly, in a four-set match, 84% of the time Novak Djokovic hit a first serve, he won the point.
The only two occasions on which his first serve was even more effective were both last year, against Tatsuma Ito and Yoshihito Nishioka in consecutive rounds. Indeed, of his top 10 serving performances in Melbourne, five have come either this year or last, a sample size of just nine matches out of the 85 he has played there.
In his quarter-final match, he hit another 23 aces and won 71% of points on his first serve. Another 17 in the semi-final.
These stats tell a story his rivals can’t ignore. The Serb has improved his serve.
Throughout his career, Djokovic’s serve has been considered effective, but not as one of the most powerful on the ATP Tour.
Can it now be considered both the most effective AND the most powerful in the men’s game?
After his win, he told Eurosport: “I have worked on my serve, especially in these conditions and surface. I have Goran Ivanisevic as my coach,”
Working with the Coach
After the final, the aforementioned Ivanisevic – himself revered for having a fearsome serve in his playing days – came out to speak to the press. Amongst answering questions on his player's injury and the achievement he had just witnessed, the Croatian former Wimbledon champion confirmed they had been working on the serve a lot. Ivanisevic didn’t want to disclose exactly what they had done but just he thought his man's serve had always been underrated by those in the game.
What Djokovic must now do is find a way to overcome two of the toughest tests in tennis – beating Nadal on the Parisian clay and Federer on the green lawns of Wimbledon.
Certainly, in the case of Federer, now 39 and due to return to playing next week after double knee surgery, the task seems that little bit more achievable. The pair have shared 13 Wimbledon titles over the past 17 years and have met four times on the London grass. Djokovic has won three of these clashes, including the last time an All-England Club final was played, the 2019 five-set marathon, with the current world no.1 just getting the better of his elder opponent.
Given his age, his recent ailments and Djokovic’s form in Melbourne, Federer would certainly go into the summer tournament as an underdog – a tag that doesn’t often fit the man from Basel.
At the delayed 2020 French Open, Nadal produced a quite stunning performance in utterly dismantling Djokovic. The Serb player seemed quite dumbstruck in his post-match press conference and conceded he had been completely outplayed.
After the defeat, Djokovic told the waiting press “He did surprise me with the way he was playing and the quality of tennis he was producing”
But Nadal has had a somewhat indifferent start to the year. He exited Melbourne at the quarter-final stage for the second year running and chose to sit out the season-starting ATP cup the previous week.
There is no doubt the Mallorcan is a different beast on the red ash surface and in all likelihood will be the man standing in the Serb’s way to a second Grand Slam of the year.
But Nadal continues to struggle with his back and recently admitted he can’t remember playing without pain.
The Year Ahead
There is no doubt we are “into the last lap” – as Ivanisevic described it – of the Grand Slam race.
And given the way it has started, it may well be the year Djokovic finally edges ahead, never looking back. At the end of the US Open, due to be played into mid-September this year, the Serbian tennis star could potentially sit on 21 Grand Slam titles. Of course, to do that he would have to achieve the unthinkable - winning all four slams in a single calendar year.
But, serving better than ever, his ability to control his opponents with his return and his insatiable hunger to be the greatest, few would back against Novak Djokovic finding a way – just as he has so many times in his career.
Written by Tom Grant