Steve Flink: The Story Of Novak Djokovic’s Emotional Australian Open Triumph - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink: The Story Of Novak Djokovic’s Emotional Australian Open Triumph

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Jack Draper Wins In Stuttgart, Potentially Faces Andy Murray in Round Two

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Jack Draper – ATP Monaco di Baviera 2024 (foto via Twitter @atptour)

Britain’s Jack Draper tight first round win headlined the opening day’s results at the Boss Open 2024 in Stuttgart – and possibly faces a second-round match with Andy Murray who takes on Marcos Giron tomorrow.

Less than 24 hours from the last ball being hit at Roland Garros, the ATP Tour had already switched surfaces onto the grass, and 22-year-old Draper was well tested but ultimately came through in two tie-breakers over Sebastian Ofner.

The sixth seed’s 7-6, 7-6 win contained just one break of serve each, both coming in the second set, as serve dominated proceedings on the faster grass courts in Germany.

While the Austrian won 75% on his first serve, Draper won a whopping 89% behind his first delivery as well as hitting eight aces. These kind of service stats will surely take him far during the grass court season.

“I thought it was a really good match,” Eurosport quoted Draper saying after his match. 
“Both of us played really clean tennis, executing really well.
“When it came down to it, I’m glad I competed really well and got over the line – it’s good to be back on the grass as well.”

There were also wins for Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann who won 6-3, 6-3 over wildcard Henri Squire, while compatriot Dominik Koepfer won in three sets over China’s Zhizhen Zhang 4-6, 7-6, 7-6. 

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Carlos Alcaraz Still Owns A Magical Racket

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The legend of Carlos Alcaraz and his magical racket lives on.

The 21-year-old Spaniard executed one magical shot after another with his racket and legs  Sunday afternoon in the French Open final. That bit of magic spelled defeat for Germany’s Alexander Zverev.

This was a final to remember, one of the great matches of all the Grand Slams. It just wasn’t in the cards for the 26-year-old Zverev to finally win a Grand Slam title.

HE HAD IT, THEN HE DIDN’T

Both players seemed to play a game of “he had it and then he didn’t.”

Alcaraz appeared to have everything under control in the first set, but Zverev rushed through the second set and then made a comeback from 5-2 down in the third set to win five straight games.

Zverev had everything going for him when he started the fourth set with a two-set advantage. It appeared that all the 6-6 Zverev had to do was to continue playing his masterful game of big serves and mighty ground strokes.

But Zverev couldn’t get started in the fourth set until he was down 4-0. So much for a smooth and easy ride to a Grand Slam title. By then, the magic of Alcaraz was heating up.

MAGIC OF ALCARAZ HEATING UP

Zverev still had his chances, even when he fell behind 2-1 in the fifth set. He had to feel pretty good about his chances when he took a triple break point lead against Alcaraz’s serve and appeared ready to even the set at 2-2. Even after Carlos came up with a winner to bring the  game score to double break point.

Zverev still was ready to even the entire match.

That’s when everything seemed to go haywire for the German, while all the while, Alcaraz was able to repeatedly come up with his magical shots as the Spaniard made critical shots that looked almost impossible to make.

ALCARAZ HEADED FOR GREATNESS

Everything for Zverev was lost in the magical racket of Alcaraz.

What was then initially called a game-ending Alcaraz double fault and a 2-2 deadlock quicky reversed itself and Alcaraz stayed alive by winning the next three points while taking a 3-1 advantage.

Zverev did get back to a 3-2 deficit and had a break point in the sixth game, but that was it for the hopes of Zverev. The last two games went rather easily in favor of Alcaraz to wrap up a 6-3, 2-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory for Alcaraz.

That moved the Spaniard to a higher level of success on the ATP Tour. He became the youngest man to win Grand Slam titles on all of the different surfaces, clay, grass and hard courts.

Carlos Alcaraz and his magical racket appear to be headed for greatness.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Tsitsipas Brothers Hit With Trio Of Fines At French Open

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Stefanos Tsitsipas and his brother Petros have been fined more than 20,000 euros for multiple violations of the coaching rules at this year’s French Open. 

The brothers received a financial penalty during three different matches that they played in. Two of those were in the second and third rounds of the men’s doubles tournament. Furthermore, Stefanos was also penalised during his singles quarter-final match against Carlos Alcaraz, which he lost in straight sets. According to French newspaper L’Equipe, all three of those fines were issued as a result of coaching rules being broken.

Ironically, coaching is allowed during matches at the French Open but certain rules must be followed. ‘Verbal’ coaching can only be issued from the coaches and their team if they are sitting in the designated player’s box. Instructions must be limited to a few words and can only be given if the player is in the same half of the court as their coach. Although non-verbal coaching is allowed regardless of what side the player is on. Finally, players can’t start a conversation with their coach unless it is during a medical break, a bathroom break or when their opponent is changing clothes.

However, the Tsitsipas brothers have been found in violation of these rules, which is likely due to their animated father in the stands who is also their coach. Apostolos Tsitsipas has been given coaching violations in the past at other events, including the 2022 Australian Open. 

The value of the fines are €4,600 and €9,200 for the Tsitsipas brothers in the doubles, as well as an additional €7,400 just for Stefanos in the singles. In total, the value of their fines is €21,200. However, the penalty is unlikely to have an impact on the duo whose combined earnings for playing in this year’s French Open amount to roughly €495,000. 

So far in the tournament, the highest single fine to be issued this year was against Terence Atmane who hit a ball out of frustration that struck a fan in the stands. Atmane, who later apologised for his actions, managed to avoid getting disqualified from the match. Instead, he was fined €23,000. 

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