Steve Flink: The Story Of Novak Djokovic’s Emotional Australian Open Triumph
Sports fans who have followed the trajectory of Novak Djokovic’s stellar career with never-ending fascination and frequent astonishment were provided with a rare glimpse inside the 35-year-old’s psyche after the charismatic Serbian took his tenth Australian Open title and a record-tying 22nd major crown in the process, rising once more to the familiar territory of No. 1 in the world. Djokovic defeated an unwavering Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in a hard fought and well played final, and then climbed into the stands to greet his entourage, hugging his mother, brother and others in his box for longer than usual because his latest landmark triumph was among the most gratifying victories he has ever secured.
As Djokovic said in the presentation ceremony under the Melbourne skyline, “I have to say that this has been one of the most challenging tournaments that I have ever played in my life, considering the circumstances, not playing last year, and coming back this year. I want to thank all of the people that made me feel welcome and made me feel comfortable to be in Melbourne and to be in Australia. There is a reason why I have played my best tennis throughout my career in Australia and on this court. Only my team and family knows what we have been through the last four or five weeks and this probably I would say is the biggest victory in my life.”
He was referring, of course, to being barred from competing in Melbourne a year ago because he is unvaccinated. But that was only a part of what he was talking about. On an even larger scale, Djokovic was alluding to the hamstring injury he suffered during a semifinal triumph over Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals of the ATP Tour event in Adelaide, which he won the following day from match point down against Sebastian Korda.
That injury hampered Djokovic considerably in his preparation for the Australian Open, restricting his practice sessions significantly, leading to increasing doubts about his fitness and viability as the man many considered the overwhelming favorite to take the title “Down Under”. Djokovic would later explain that he had deep concerns about participating at all.
All through the first three rounds, his off and on pain was unmistakable. He was not troubled terribly in the first round but despite a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 scoreline against Spain’s Roberto Carballes Baena his alacrity around the court was clearly subpar. Nonetheless, Djokovic cast aside the world No. 75 easily. But his next two matches were unpleasant experiences for the No. 4 seed.
He beat qualifier Enzo Couacaud of France 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-0 in the second round but required medical timeouts as his ailing leg was a cause for consternation. That was the only set he dropped over the fortnight, and Djokovic, even though he pulled away inexorably in the end, was not a happy camper. He was burdened again when he took on the No. 27 seed Grigor Dimitrov, an Australian Open semifinalist six years ago.
Although Dimitrov had defeated Djokovic only once in ten previous clashes, he played inspired tennis this time around before Djokovic emerged with a 7-6 (7), 6-3, 6-4 triumph, but not before saving three set points in the critical opening set. He then took a medical timeout to ease his hamstring pain. Leading by two breaks in the third set, Djokovic, very worried about his injury, took another medical timeout.
But the turning point in his crusade to recapture the crown he had worn nine times before was a fourth round appointment against the industrious Alex De Minaur. Djokovic had never played the No. 22 seed prior to that evening, but for the first time in the tournament he was covering the court with characteristic force and speed. He took the Australian apart comprehensively 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 with a scintillating display of his court craft and strategic acumen.
Now at long last the essential Djokovic came to the forefront. As he mentioned afterwards, not until he devoured De Minaur did the Serbian believe he had what it took physically to win the tournament. Confronting Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals, Djokovic was in similarly sparkling form, obliterating the No. 5 seed 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Rublev had prevailed in the match of the tournament over the No. 9 seed Holger Rune of Denmark in the round of 16.
Trailing 2-5 in the fifth set of that confrontation, Rublev made it back to 5-5. Behind again at 5-6, he held on from 15-40, erasing two match points. And then, astoundingly, Rublev rescued himself one last time from 0-5 in the conclusive tie-break to win that sequence 11-9. It was the mightiest comeback of Rublev’s career as he came through 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (9). He was euphoric following that win. But seldom has the No. 5 seed looked more forlorn after a loss as he did against a top of the line Djokovic, who took him apart systemically. That set the stage for Djokovic to meet Tommy Paul in a semifinal appointment.
The American had reached the penultimate round for the first time at a major tournament, which assured him of a place among the top 20 in the world. Djokovic was in a commanding position at 5-1, 40-30 in the opening set, only to send a forehand down the line into the net on set point. Improbably, Paul rallied to 5-5. But Djokovic recovered his confidence, taking 14 of the last 17 games to topple Paul 7-5, 6-1, 6-2. Paul had accounted for the popular left-handed American Ben Shelton, who was playing outside of the United States for the first time. In their quarterfinal, Paul was the victor in four sets.
Meanwhile, in the top half of the draw, another American was making inroads. Korda—fresh from his stirring final round performance against Djokovic in Adelaide when the Serbian put away an overhead emphatically at match point down— kept moving onwards and upwards in Melbourne. He stunned the No. 7 seed Medvedev 7-6 (7), 6-3, 7-6 (4) in the third round. The Russian was runner-up to Djokovic in 2021 and Nadal a year ago, but he had no answers for the smooth craftsmanship of the young American. Not resting on his laurels, the No. 29 seed Korda knocked out No. 10 seed Hubert Hurkacz in a spellbinding contest that went the distance. In the fifth set tie-break, Korda battled back to win six points in a row from 1-3 to take a 7-3 lead. Hurkacz then collected four points in a row to make it 7-7, but a composed Korda took three in a row from there to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (10-7).
Korda thus moved on to the quarterfinals but injured his wrist midway through a disappointing loss to Karen Khachanov. The Russian prevailed 7-6 (5), 6-3, 3-0 retired. But, predictably, Khachanov was beaten by a tougher and more disciplined Tsitsipas in a four set semifinal.
And so it all came down to Djokovic versus Tsitsipas for the first major title of 2023. Unbeknownst to many casual fans, Tsitsipas was victorious in two of the first three matches he played against Djokovic back in 2018 and 2019, achieving both of his wins on hard courts. But since then, Djokovic had won nine in a row over the Greek stylist, including their only previous Grand Slam final at Roland Garros in 2021 when the Serbian recovered from two sets down to prevail in five sets.
They had met four times last year between May and November, including two final round duels. All of those matches were hotly contested, but each and every time Djokovic declared himself the better player on the biggest points. The most striking example was their semifinal at the Masters 1000 indoor event in Paris. Tsitsipas was serving with a 4-3 lead in the tie-break before a perspicacious Djokovic collected four points in a row for the win.
In this appointment, the consequences for both players were immense. Djokovic knew he could tie Rafael Nadal for the most men’s major titles at 22. He realized he could return to the summit of the sport and reside once more at No. 1. He understood that, even if he is a very young 35, opportunities at this stage of his career must be seized, and so that gave him an even larger sense of urgency. As for Tsitsipas, he had been waiting for a long time to get a chance like this. After a shocking first round loss at the U.S. Open last summer, he played high level tennis across the autumn and at the start of this season in the United Cup. He sorely wanted a first major. He was on a quest to establish himself as the first Greek singles victor at a Grand Slam championship.
Although he was less dominant than Djokovic in Melbourne, the fact remains that Tsitsipas dropped only three sets in six matches en route to the title round contest. Jannik Sinner took Tsitsipas to five sets in the round of 16, but was ultimately outplayed by the persistent No. 3 seed, who fended off 22 of 26 break points.
This is a man who has often been outstanding on the hard courts “Down Under”. He reached the semifinals in 2019, striking down Roger Federer along the way before losing to Rafael Nadal. Two years later, he brought down Nadal after being behind two sets to love, bowing in the semifinals again— this time against Medvedev. And last year Tsitsipas was ushered out of the tournament once more by Medvedev in the semis.
He was delighted to reach his first Australian Open final this time around, and seemingly confident about his chances. But while Djokovic was primed from the outset and ready to release his finest tennis, Tsitsipas was initially apprehensive. In the crucial opening set, Djokovic was serving magnificently, hitting all of his spots, finding the corners regularly, keeping his adversary off guard.
Djokovic won 20 of 25 points on his delivery in the first set and was not even pushed to deuce in his five service games. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, was struggling early on. He escaped from 15-40 in the second game but was broken the next time when he double faulted long on break point. Djokovic moved ahead 3-1 and never looked back. Serving for the set at 5-3, Djokovic missed only one first serve. At 30-15, he went to a heavy kicker on the first serve to elicit an errant backhand return, and then on the following point produced an impeccable slice serve wide in the deuce court that Tsitsipas could not handle. That wide serve was tremendously effective all match long for the Serbian.
The second set was well played on both sides of the net. There were no breaks but good opportunities for both players. At 3-4, Djokovic held on from 15-30 but Tsitsipas sent out two aces on his way to 5-4. In the pivotal tenth game of the set, Tsitsipas reached break point for the first time in the match. Djokovic was in a perilous position at 4-5, 30-40, set point down. Tsitsipas thus found himself one point away from evening the match at one set all. The two competitors had a 15 stoke exchange that Djokovic concluded with a forehand inside in winner struck with plenty of margin for error. Tsitsipas was cautious during that backcourt exchange, but Djokovic unhesitatingly seized the initiative.
Djokovic held on for 5-5. Soon they moved to a tie-break. Djokovic served with a 4-1 lead but tightened up flagrantly, netting a two-hander off a looped shot from Tsitsipas and double faulting into the net. A body serve to the forehand from Tsitsipas provoked an error from Djokovic to make it 4-4. Tsitsipas then erred off the forehand. Forehand to forehand, Djokovic was the better man in this match, and backhand to backhand it was the same story.
Djokovic picked on the Tsitsipas backhand to win the next point, and sealed the tie-break 7-4 with another excellent slice serve wide drawing a netted forehand return. It was two sets to love for the 35-year-old.
Surprisingly, Djokovic opened the third set after a bathroom break with a loose game on serve. He suffered his only lost service game of the match, opening with a double fault and getting broken on an errant backhand approach. But he broke right back to prevent Tsitsipas from building any momentum. The rest of that set, Djokovic was unstoppable on serve again. In his last five service games he conceded only two points, concluding the set with four love games in a row on his delivery. Tsitsipas did not hold as comfortably, but he, too, was unflagging.
On to another tie-break went the two gladiators. As was the case in the second set, Djokovic took a commanding lead. This time he was ahead 5-0 but on the following point a fan screamed out just before Djokovic made contact with a backhand, and the favorite was distracted into a mistake. Tsitsipas closed the gap to 5-3 but Djokovic opened up the court for a clean winner down the line off the forehand.
That placement gave Djokovic triple match point, but Tsitsipas fought off two of them on his own serve. Serving at 6-5, Djokovic made the third match point count, sending a forehand inside-in to provoke an error from the 24-year-old Greek competitor. In two hours and 56 minutes, Djokovic had raised his record in Australian Open finals to a stellar 10-0. It was demonstrable in Melbourne that Djokovic’s serve is better than ever; he was broken only six times in seven matches and his pace and precision were exemplary. Moreover, he is hitting the forehand harder than ever, but making very few errors off that side. His court awareness and tactical acuity are at an all time high. He has reached a new level of excellence as a match player.
It was in Melbourne 15 years ago that Djokovic garnered his first Grand Slam title. He demonstrated his prowess as a big occasion player in the process. But, as the years passed, he lost some very consequential matches. In fact, after a four set setback against Nadal in the 2014 Roland Garros final, Djokovic had a 6-7 record in Grand Slam tournament finals. Since then, however, he has been stupendous, capturing 16 of his last 20 title meetings at the majors. He now stands at 22-11 for his career.
Djokovic has been nothing less than magnificent since winning his seventh Wimbledon last July. He has won six of his last seven tournaments (including two majors and the prestigious ATP Finals) since that time, and 38 of 40 matches. Only Felix Auger-Aliassime at Laver Cup and Holger Rune in Paris has beaten the best player in the world during this remarkable span.
As he emphasized in Melbourne, Djokovic is taking nothing for granted. He wants to make the most of the next couple of years and exploit each and every opening he has to win the premier prizes in the sport. He should be able to compete in all three remaining Grand Slam tournaments later this year. It would not surprise me in the least if he wins two of them. He should secure at least one more Grand Slam title this season. It seems entirely possible he will be in the forefront of the game for two or perhaps three more years.
Novak Djokovic came into Melbourne awfully worried about his plight, aggravated by an injury, and pessimistic about his chances. But he leaves with a renewed sense of his superiority and an inner feeling that the rest of 2023 is going to be both productive and exhilarating as he realizes his largest dreams and pursues his wildest ambitions. At 35, he just might be playing the best brand of tennis he has ever put on display for the world.
Miami Open Daily Preview: Elena Rybakina Plays Jessica Pegula in the Semifinals
Due to rain on Wednesday, only one WTA semifinal will be played on Thursday.
Elena Rybakina is just two wins away from completing the “Sunshine Double,” which is winning both Indian Wells and Miami. But in Thursday’s WTA semifinal, American No.1 Jessica Pegula stands in her way. The other semifinal is still to be determined, and will not be played until Friday, as Petra Kvitova and Ekaterina Alexandrova will contest their rain-delayed quarterfinal on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the ATP quarterfinals will be completed on Thursday. Indian Wells finalist Daniil Medvedev faces American Chris Eubanks, who has been the breakout story of this tournament thus far. Also, Karen Khachanov takes on Francisco Cerundolo, who is vying for his second consecutive semifinal in Miami. And delayed from Wednesday night, Carlos Alcaraz battles Taylor Fritz in another ATP quarterfinal.
You can find a preview of the Alcaraz/Fritz and Kvitova/Alexandrova quarterfinals in yesterday’s daily preview here.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Thursday’s play gets underway at 1:00pm local time.
Chris Eubanks (Q) vs. Daniil Medvedev (4) – 1:00pm on Stadium
Medvedev leads the ATP with 26 wins this season, as well as with three titles. Daniil has not dropped a set to this stage, though he’s only played two matches thus far due to a walkover earlier this week.
Eubanks has already won six matches this fortnight after coming through qualifying. And the 26-year-old achieved a career goal of breaking into the top 100 with this quarterfinal run. Chris became emotional on-court after clinching that feat on Monday, and followed it up with another upset the next day, over Adrian Mannarino. The American is projected to become ranked 85th in the world on Monday, but a win on Thursday would propel him into the top 60.
In their first career meeting, of course the self-proclaimed “hard court specialist” Medvedev is a strong favorite. But I’m quite interested to see how Eubanks performs in the biggest match of his career. During a rain delay on Monday, Frances Tiafoe provided Eubanks with some advice in the locker room, which Chris credited with helping him come back in the second-set tiebreak once play resumed. He’s played more freely since that comeback, and Eubanks may feel as if he has nothing to lose on Thursday.
Elena Rybakina (10) vs. Jessica Pegula (3) – Not Before 8:30pm on Stadium
Rybakina is 20-4 this season, and is currently on a 10-match win streak. If her 2,000 points from winning Wimbledon last summer counted, she’d currently be ranked third in the world. Elena easily dispatched of Martina Trevisan in the last round.
Pegula is 19-5 on the year, and 10-3 in Miami. This is her second consecutive semifinal at this event, and she’s the No.3 player in the world without Rybakina’s Wimbledon points counting. She saved multiple match points to come back and defeat Anastasia Potapova during Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Pegula is 2-0 against Rybakina, with both matches taking place on hard courts during 2022. A year ago at this same tournament, Jess prevailed in straight sets. And last fall in Guadalajara, Pegula outlasted Rybakina in a final-set tiebreak, another match in which the American saved multiple match points. As confident as Elena currently is, with her big serve and groundstrokes dictating play, it’s hard not to favor the reigning Wimbledon champ. But based on their recent history, as well as Pegula’s rising confidence after saving match points in the last round, I give Jess the slight edge in Thursday’s semifinals on home soil.
Other Notable Matches on Thursday:
Francisco Cerundolo (25) vs. Karen Khachanov (14) – Cerundolo was in danger of falling out of the top 40 with an early loss in Miami, defending the best result of his career at this level, but has impressed by returning to the quarterfinals, defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime on the way. Khachanov upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in the last round, and is looking to reach his first Masters semifinal since 2019. Last summer in Canada, Karen defeated Francisco in three sets.
Thursday’s full Order of Play is here.
Miami Open Daily Preview: Indian Wells Champs Carlos Alcaraz and Taylor Fritz Collide
On Wednesday in Miami, 2023 Indian Wells champion Carlos Alcaraz faces 2022 champ Taylor Fritz for the first time.
Alcaraz is just three wins away from defending his Miami title, which he needs to do in order to remain World No.1. Wednesday’s other ATP quarterfinal sees Indian Wells semifinalist Jannik Sinner take on Emil Ruusuvuori, who is the first Finnish quarterfinalist at a Masters 1000 tournament in a decade.
In the WTA singles draw, Aryna Sabalenka and Petra Kvitova are one round away from a big-hitting semifinal. But first, they must get past Sorana Cirstea and Ekaterina Alexandrova, respectively.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Wednesday’s play gets underway at 1:00pm local time.
Ekaterina Alexandrova (18) vs. Petra Kvitova (15) – Not Before 7:00pm on Stadium
Kvitova is 14-5 this season, and has now reached the quarterfinals of both Indian Wells and Miami this month. Petra has also now advanced to the fourth round or better of this event for the fifth straight time, and has not dropped a set this fortnight.
Alexandrova had a losing record this year before arriving in Miami. She defeated Belinda Bencic two rounds ago, and advanced in the last round after Bianca Andreescu’s upsetting ankle injury. This is Ekaterina’s second WTA 1000 quarterfinal, after first achieving that feat last year in Madrid, when she advanced to the semifinals.
Their only previous encounter occurred three years ago at the Australian Open, when Kvitova comfortably prevailed 6-1, 6-2. Ekaterina does not possess the same offensive weaponry of Petra, so on a hard court, the two-time Wimbledon champion is a considerable favorite to win again on Wednesday.
Carlos Alcaraz (1) vs. Taylor Fritz (9) – Not Before 8:30pm on Stadium
Alcaraz is 17-1 on the season, despite missing all of January due to injury. His only loss came to Cam Norrie in the final of Rio, a match in which Carlitos reaggravated his leg injury. He’s yet to drop a set during this tournament.
Fritz is 20-5 in 2023, and has now reached the quarterfinals or better at his last five events. This is Taylor’s first quarterfinal in Miami, and his third consecutive quarterfinal as Masters 1000 events in North America. Like Alcaraz, he’s also yet to lose a set in Miami, but he’s 1-4 in his last five Masters quarterfinals.
This is the first career meeting between the World No.1 and the American No.1. Fritz certainly has the firepower to threaten Alcaraz on this day. But based on Carlitos’ recent sharp form, the 19-year-old is the favorite to advance to the semifinals.
Other Notable Matches on Wednesday:
Sorana Cirstea vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2) – Sabalenka is now a stellar 20-2 on the year, and has allowed her opponents this past week an average of just 2.5 games per set. Cirstea is having an excellent March, having advanced to her second consecutive WTA 1000 quarterfinal, a stage she hadn’t reached since 2017. This is another first-time career meeting.
Emil Ruusuvuori vs. Jannik Sinner (10) – Sinner is vying for his second consecutive Masters semifinal, and has not dropped a set thus far in Miami. This is Ruuuvuori’s maiden Masters 1000 quarterfinal, at the only Masters event where he had ever previously advanced beyond the third round. Jannik is 4-0 against Emil, with all of those wins in straight sets, except a match in Miami a year ago that went to a third-set tiebreak, and saw Sinner save three match points.
Wednesday’s full Order of Play is here.
Miami Open Daily Preview: Two Matches Between Top 10 Seeds Headline Fourth Round ATP Action
All ATP fourth round singles matches will take place on Tuesday in Miami.
And in a rarity, two of those fourth round matches include meetings between top 10 seeds. 2022 Indian Wells champ Taylor Fritz takes on 2022 Bercy champ Holger Rune. And in a battle of the gingers, Andrey Rublev faces Jannik Sinner. Other ATP matches on Tuesday include three of the four top seeds: Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Also on Tuesday, the WTA quarterfinals begin. American No.1 Jessica Pegula will look to avenge a loss her doubles partner Coco Gauff experienced earlier in the tournament to Anastasia Potapova. And Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina plays Italy’s Martina Trevisan, who took out another Major champ, Jelena Ostapenko, on Monday.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Tuesday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.
Jannik Sinner (10) vs. Andrey Rublev (6) – 11:00am on Grandstand
Rublev is a modest 13-7 this season, but was a semifinalist in Miami two years ago. He comfortably defeated Miomir Kecmanovic in the last round by a score of 6-1, 6-2.
Sinner is a strong 18-4 this season, and is coming off a semifinal run at Indian Wells. He was the runner-up at this tournament two years ago.
These two have split four prior meetings, the last three of which occurred on clay. Their only hard court matchup took place three years ago in Vienna, with Sinner retiring after just three games. But considering Jannik’s impressive form this season, he should be favored to advance on Tuesday.
Taylor Fritz (9) vs. Holger Rune (7) – 12:00pm on Stadium
Dating back to the end of September, Rune is now 33-8. The 19-year-old achieved four consecutive finals to end last season, winning two of them (Stockholm, Bercy). This is his Miami Open debut.
Fritz is 19-5 in 2023, and is vying for his fifth consecutive quarterfinal of the year. This would mark his seventh Masters 1000 quarterfinal, all achieved since the start of 2021. But Taylor is 0-2 in the fourth round of this tournament, losing in the past two years to Bublik and Kecmanovic.
In their first career meeting, it’s hard to pick a winner. Fritz has become a pretty reliable performer, while Rune remains quite a streaky player, with impressive highs and some immature lows. Both possess similar weapons on court, and neither have dropped a set through two matches. I’ll give the slight edge to Holger based on his recent hard court success.
Other Notable Matches on Tuesday:
Martina Trevisan (25) vs. Elena Rybakina (10) – Rybakina has now won nine matches in a row. Trevisan was only 3-8 on the year ahead of this quarterfinal run. This is another first career meeting.
Karen Khachanov (14) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (2) – Tsitsipas survived a tight three-setter against an in-form Cristian Garin on Monday, while Khachanov easily dispatched of up-and-coming 21-year-old Jiri Lehecka. Stefanos is 6-0 against Karen, which includes a four-set victory at this year’s Australian Open.
Carlos Alcaraz (1) vs. Tommy Paul (16) – Alcaraz is now 16-1 this season, and has claimed his last 17 completed sets. Paul is 16-5, and was a semifinalist in Melbourne, as well as a finalist in Acapulco. Tommy took their only previous encounter, last summer in Montreal, in a three-set match that lasted three hours and 20 minutes.
Jessica Pegula (3) vs. Anastasia Potapova (27) – Pegula has now reached the quarterfinals or better at seven of the last nine WTA 1000 events. This is Potapova’s first quarterfinal at this level in over two years. At the last WTA 1000 event, in Indian Wells, Pegula came from behind to beat Potapova 7-5 in the third.
Quentin Halys vs. Daniil Medvedev (4) – Medvedev is 25-3 on the year, and received a walkover on Monday from Alex Molcan. Halys upset Alex de Minaur on Saturday, and had never won a main draw match at Masters 1000 level prior to this fortnight.
Tuesday’s full Order of Play is here.
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