Novak Djokovic Expanded “The Field Of Craziness”
5:22 PM EST on January 29, 2023
When you've won 10 Australian Opens—a descriptor that applies to only one man ever, Novak Djokovic, who earned it on Sunday—there's a natural narrative challenge in distinguishing between them. But we can round up a few of recent vintage and slap some labels on them. Which one was 2020? The One Where Dominic Thiem Nearly Did It. What about 2021? The One With The Abdominal Tear. And 2022? Not a win, but eternal all the same as The One Where He Got Deported. If this 2023 journey had a tagline, it would be The One With The Hamstring And Sobs. After defeating No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6(4), 7-6(5), Novak Djokovic climbed into his player's box, hollered Idemo, embraced his team, and then laid down on the floor beneath the folding seats and wept for over 40 seconds. Of the record-tying 22 major title celebrations he's enjoyed over the last 15 years, here, apparently, was Djokovic's most extreme catharsis yet.
Before the sobs, though, there was the hamstring. Djokovic had tweaked his left hamstring in a match in Adelaide on Jan. 7 and entered the tournament under a cloud of uncertainty. That injury, rather than any particular human opponent, seemed like the most serious threat to his title chances in Melbourne. Every match at this Open, Djokovic played with a left thigh fully mummified in white bandage. (Except for the final, when he stripped it down to a single strip of physio tape.) Those early-round matches were grimly captivating. In the second round, Djokovic dropped one set to the qualifier Enzo Couacaud, to whom he ordinarily might not lose more than a handful of games, then said afterward that the hamstring was "not good at all." A third-round test against Grigor Dimitrov should've been difficult to win on one leg, and while that match had its dicey moments, Djokovic still emerged in straights.
“It kind of always starts well and then some movement happens and then it gets worse," he said after the win over Dimitrov. "Pills kick in, some hot cream and stuff, that works for a little bit, then it doesn’t, then works again. It’s really a roller coaster, honestly."
For the outside observer, at least, that match marked the end of the ride. All doubts about Djokovic's form dissipated in the fourth round, when he chopped up local boy Alex de Minaur into little pieces and dropped them in five different bodies of water. It was as near to perfection as he's drawn in some time. Asked afterward why he beat de Minaur so convincingly, Djokovic answered, "Because I wanted to." If Novak Djokovic is feeling himself to such an extent, anyone in the draw not named Carlos Alcaraz or Rafael Nadal should immediately begin comparing airfares. Andrey Rublev, fresh off a luminous win, proved a non-entity in his quarterfinal against Djokovic. In the semifinal, Tommy Paul managed to make it an extremely high-quality blowout, but it was a blowout nonetheless.
As Djokovic approached his physical and technical ceiling, skeptics cocked an eyebrow about the severity of the stated injury. Defenders fired back, a sentiment best encapsulated Djokovic's own line from his post-championship presser: "Only my injuries are questioned. When some other players are injured, then they are the victims, but when it is me, I am faking it." The most evenhanded and useful discussion might be a Twitter thread from world No. 9 Taylor Fritz, who insists he's talking in the abstract, even though the context is obvious. His gist: Every player has some health niggle or other, some players like to talk about it openly for various psychological reasons, and people pay disproportionate attention when the biggest players talk. For pure copy, nobody beats Djokovic's coach, Goran Ivanisevic, who said after the final that 97 percent of players would've withdrawn from the tournament after seeing the results of that MRI. "He's from outer space. His brain is working different," Ivanisevic said, waggling his hands around his temples. "He's getting crazier and crazier, I can say that. There is no end of the field of craziness. In a positive way, I mean."
The man from outer space entered a final against Tsitsipas having won their last 11 meetings, including a traumatic two-sets-down comeback in the final at Roland-Garros. To win this match, Tsitsipas would have had to peak. Some opponents are doomed against this man from the coin-flip, but Tsitsipas, when summoning his best, can send fissures through the Djokovic defense with his diverse all-court offense. Reader: He did not. The first set was over in a wink, the type that the Big Three tend to steal away from young opponents before they've even had a chance to rub the sleep out of their eyes. Tsitsipas stepped it up in set two, and Djokovic looked fleetingly vulnerable: toppling over during a lengthy rally, barking at his coach, glaring at disruptive fans in the crowd. But the champ won a second-set tiebreak played sloppily by both parties, held steady until a third-set tiebreak, and then took that, too. Aside from tying Nadal in the major title count, the win also restored Djokovic's No. 1 ranking.
One question persists. Maybe I am the only fool who still bothers asking it. Can a younger player show up to a major final and defeat Novak Djokovic, while Novak Djokovic is playing at or near full strength? The counterexamples are proliferating. Just one time, Djokovic didn't hold up his end of the deal, collapsing against Daniil Medvedev at the end of an enervating quest to complete the calendar slam. In every other instance, the elder has prevailed. Neither Thiem (2020) nor Medvedev (2021) could win in Australia; Tsitsipas couldn't win at Roland-Garros (2021); neither Matteo Berrettini (2021) nor Nick Kyrgios (2022) could do it at Wimbledon. "I don't see this as a curse, I don't see this as something annoying. This is very good for the sport—to have competitors like him, to have champions like him," said the 24-year-old Tsitsipas of his 35-year-old conquerer. "Getting our asses kicked is for sure a very good lesson every time."