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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Injured Alcaraz Pulls Out of Rio Open After Two Games

A sprained ankle a couple of minutes into his debut at the Rio Open forced top seed Carlos Alcaraz to abandon his match against Thiago Monteiro

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Carlos Alcaraz after the injury - Rio 2024 (photo Tennis TV)

For world no. 2 Carlos Alcaraz, this year’s Rio Open lasted two games: the Spanish champion had to retire on the score of 1-1 in the first set during his first-round match against Brazilian Thiago Monteiro due to a sprained right ankle suffered in the second point of the match.

 

In an accident somewhat reminiscent of the terrible one suffered by Zverev in the semi-final of Roland Garros 2022, Alcaraz’s right foot “got stuck”  in the clay as he returned towards the center of the court after returning from the left, and he immediately flew to the ground dropping his racket. The Spaniard immediately asked for a medical time-out, but as soon as he took off his shoe it was immediately clear that his ankle had already swollen.

After having a tight bandage applied, Alcaraz tried to continue the match, but just two games later he understood that it was not possible to continue so he shook hands with his opponent, abandoning the Brazilian tournament.

The match was played on a very heavy court due to the rain that had fallen heavily during the day. The organizers had been forced to cancel the daytime session and play could only begin around 7.30 pm local time, after the courts had remained under pouring water all day.

Alcaraz told the press present in Rio: “I think these things happen, especially on clay. It wasn’t a problem with the court, I hurt myself in a change of direction and this happens on this type of surface. I went back into the match to see if I could continue or not. I spoke to the physiotherapist on the court and we decided, together, that I would continue to see if the ankle would improve. It didn’t happen, so we preferred to be cautious and withdraw as a precaution.”

Considering that Alcaraz left the court on his own two feet and managed to wobble through a couple of games after the injury, it is quite likely that the injury he suffered is much less serious than the one that kept Alexander Zverev away from tournaments for over seven months. However, it will be necessary to verify whether it is just a sprain or whether tendons or ligaments have been involved. If this were to be the case, the prognosis could turn out to be longer, and this is happening less than two weeks before the start of the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami.

The Spaniard is scheduled to play an exhibition in Las Vegas on 3rd March against Rafael Nadal: it will be decided in the next few days whether to withdraw as a precaution for the first Masters 1000 of the season in Indian Wells.

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Can Jannik Sinner dodge the morning-after syndrome?

Very few players have managed to follow up their first triumph in a Major. Hewitt is the last new Grand Slam champion to immediately win an ATP title. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all misfired, can Jannik Sinner do better?

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Jannik Sinner - Australian Open 2024 (photo: X @federtennis)

By Roman Bongiorno

“The morning-after syndrome,” as they call it. The list of great champions who have suffered from it – Carlos Alcaraz, Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, is impressive.  Some of the most illustrious names in our sport, the most successful ever. Yet, even for those who are legends, the match immediately after their first Grand Slam triumph is often an insurmountable hurdle.

 

The very young Spanish phenomenon, born in 2003, was the latest striking example. After winning the 2022 US Open and becoming the new world No. 1, Alcaraz managed to win just one set in his next two matches: he lost 6-7 6-4 6-2 in the Davis Cup against Felix Auger Aliassime, who was definitely on fire in that period, and was inflicted a 7-5 6-3 defeat by veteran David Goffin in his first match at the ATP 500 in Astana.

Mentally, it’ not easy. The most important triumph of one’s life, immediately to be put aside.  And go back to work. The media are quick to pounce on any slip, headlines hinting at signs of a career already over: “it’s gone to his head”, “he has made his money” etc.

Less than a year later, Carlos Alcaraz was once more a Grand Slam champion, beating Novak Djokovic in the final at Wimbledon.

Just think of tennis legends such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who fell victims to this serious syndrome. The former, after his triumph at Roland Garros 2005, stepped back on court on the green grass of Halle, losing in 3 sets to the world number 147 German Alexander Waske: 4-6 7-5 6-3. For many, that was a disastrous defeat foreshadowing a future that would not be as bright as it had seemed. Rafa told another story, by winning another 21 Grand Slam titles, on every surface.

The Serbian, on the other hand, thrived on the hard courts of Melbourne, just like Jannik Sinner. In 2008, after winning the title, he was engaged in Davis Cup against Russia. He did not finish his rubber against Nikolay Davydenko and retired at the beginning of the fourth set while trailing 2 sets to 1. In his first ATP tour appearance, in Marseille, after brushing aside Ivan Dodig, he was ousted in three sets by Gilles Simon. Over the following 15 years Novak Djokovic went on to become the has become the most successful player ever.

What about Roger Federer? After lifting the trophy won at Wimbledon in 2003, he moved to the home clay of Gstaad.  He survived the morning-after syndrome  after a fierce but victorious struggle in the first round with the Spaniard Marc Lopez, ranked No.190. Then he cruised till the final, but was defeated in a five set hustle 5-7 6-3 6-3 1-6 6-3 by Jiri Novak.

The morning-after did not spare Juan Martin del Potro. After his stunning victory over Federer at the 2009 US Open, he set foot on an ATP tennis court three weeks later in Tokyo. It was Edouard Roger Vassellin, 189th in the world, who spoiled the party, neatly defeating the Argentinian in two sets, 64 64.

Even “Ice man” Bjorn Borg, the man without (apparent) emotions, focused only on tennis and winning, lost the first match after his success at Roland Garros 1974. He was defeated in the first round in Nottingham by world No. 71 Milan Holecek from Czechoslovakia. Over the next years he definitely made up for that impasse on English lawns.

A rare bird at last, and not by chance does it come from Australia, a land which is ever so rich in unique species. Lleyton Hewitt, who in 2001 after steamrolling Pete Sampras in the US Open final, immediately won his next matches, two singles rubbers in the Davis Cup against Jonas Bjorkman and Thomas Johansson, and then went on to win in Tokyo by beating Michel Kratochvil in the final.

Jannik Sinner has been building up his success on gruelling feats. Sure he’s eager to be back on the Dutch indoor courts of Rotterdam where he enjoyed a brilliant run last year, only surrendering to Danil Medvedev in the final. Just one year ago the Russian seemed an impossible opponent to defeat. Now, in the last 4 challenges, Jannik has beaten him 4 times. The last one, in the final of the Australian Open.

Rotterdam could have been the stage for a rematch, but Medvedev has pulled out of the tournament. Jannik Sinner appears as a favourite, and is vying to close in on that third place of the rankings currently held by Daniil.

Jannik has set out on his mission. But even if he were to be defeated in the first round by an opponent ranked beyond the top 200, no one should dare cry failure. Italy at last has a Grand Slam winner, and he is not to be downplay him in case of first defeats.

Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye

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Matteo Berrettini Looks To Draw Inspiration From Jannik Sinner

Matteo Berrettini is looking to draw inspiration from Jannik Sinner ahead of his comeback to the ATP tour.

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Matteo Berrettini is looking to draw inspiration from Jannik Sinner as Berrettini is continuing his recovery from his injury.

 

The former Wimbledon finalist has had a horrible run of injuries which has seen the Italian fall down the rankings as he is now at 124 in the world.

After suffering a horrible injury at the US Open during his match with Arthur Rinderknech, Berrettini was looking to make his return at the Australian Open as he was set to face Stefanos Tsitsipas in the opening round.

However just before the match, Berrettini withdrew as he decided to delay his comeback to the tour as he will aim to return to the court as soon as possible.

If Berrettini needed any inspiration then Jannik Sinner’s triumph at the Australian Open could be that much needed spark as the Italian beat Novak Djokovic on his way to capturing a first Grand Slam title.

Speaking an interview Berrettini explained that he is still not 100% and admits he is looking to draw inspiration from Sinner’s form, “I’m better, but I’m not yet 100%,” Berrettini was quoted by Tennis Infinity as saying.

“The goal is to play the whole season, and without these setbacks which are destroying my body and my head. Sinner did a miracle. I will also use this energy for my tennis. I was happy with what Jannik said.

“We have a good relationship, which has strengthened in recent months. We are different but similar. We are pursuing the same dream.”

Berrettini will hope Sinner’s success will have a positive influence on his recovery and quicken his return to the tour as the former world number six aims for a successful return to the tour.

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