Australian Open: Novak Djokovic, the Happy Warrior, Wins the Happy Slam

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By Bill Simons

“Supposing truth is a woman, what then?”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Listen up, guys.

No doubt about it. The two finalists in the 2015 Australian Open were guy’s guys. But truth be told, fellows, much of the pizzazz at this year’s Aussie Open related to woman. The opening day story was the departure of No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic. In the second round Maria Sharapova barely avoided being booted out, and during the mid-days of the tournament, feminine themes rang loud: there was the surge of young American gals, and the golden run of the legend who led the battle for equal pay in tennis. “This old cat has more tricks up her sleeve,” Venus Williams told us, as she inspired many en route to the quarterfinals.

Then there was the dazzling “a star is born” run by Madison Keys, and a sizzling woman’s final between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, the two greatest stars in the woman’s game: glamour blaster Maria Sharapova and the glorious mama of Big Babe tennis, Serena Williams.

Even the men’s side of the draw had feminine story lines. Writers spoke of the joy of the always-joking Novak Djokovic, who was in love, recently married and now a papa. After his quarterfinal win, the scoreboard showed an image of his infant son watching his daddy play. More than this, Djokovic would never have made it to Melbourne if it weren’t for a woman—his late coach Jelena Gencic, who discovered and shaped him as a tennis player and a man.

Likewise, Andy Murray’s career in some measure has been about the First Lady of Mens tennis. His mum Judy, a former Scottish tennis star, has been front and center throughout her son’s career. Even one of the better back stories of this Australian Open final has a feminine touch: In the 2013 final, Murray was distracted by a drifting feather—his whole game was disrupted, and he went on to lose to the Serb.

This year, the feminine beat went on. Murray’s fiancée Kim Sears was caught cussing and dropping X-rated bombs in the direction of Tomas Berdych, and there was significant hand-wringing about Murray’s bold choice to hire Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. The lesbian French champion, who Martina Hingis once likened to a man, was now being questioned because she’s a gal. Go figure.

Then again, there was much to figure out about today’s compelling men’s final.

This was the third meeting between Djokovic and Murray in the Aussie final, and Djokovic had prevailed in both previous matches. Not surprisingly, the Serb came out on fire, hitting all-out with laser precision, on or near the lines. From the start, he was hitting a tad flatter and harder and with his usual flexi-brilliance. This was Djokovician tennis—modern hard court tennis—at its best. Like a cat, the man with jelly joints pounced. And soon he broke serve.

But then the Scot bristled, said no way, and began prevailing in powerful, long, excruciating rallies. The very physical dance was on.

The Serb edged to the front by a nose. The Scot countered—they traded blows and traded breaks. The momentum switched, the margins became thin, the rallies grew longer: such fierce firefights. There are few—make that no—secrets between these two, who were born just a week apart. They’ve battled since they were 11-year-old wannabes. Pound, blast, slide, stop, screech, cross-court, reverse direction, let cord, lob winner, the crowd howls, deep breath, whatever it takes to win.

In the first-set tiebreak, Djokovic surged from 2-4 down thanks to a double fault and a wretched forehand volley from Murray, and drew first blood.

Novak’s and Andy’s games mirror each other and are a kind of blueprint for the modern game: great two-handed backhands, lightning speed, brilliant defense, strong returns, fierce belief, never give up.

But what came next was a set like no other—a set with little flow and less form. Suddenly, Djokovic’s left ankle gave way. His legs wobbled, his movement grew awkward. In the moment, one worried: Could he go on? Murray broke quickly, but then his concentration waned. Was this rope-a-dope? Later, Murray said he got distracted and that “it’s not legitimate” to distract your opponent, but he didn’t know if Djokovic was doing that on purpose.

Novak promptly came back to claim a 4-3 lead when protesters calling for refugee rights got on court, disrupting the match.

Murray took refuge and regrouped, forcing a tiebreak and sprinting to a 7-4 win to gain the second set and even the battle. The crowd roared, and his love Kim Sears (in a T-shirt that read “Parental Advisory: Explicit Language”) cheered.

But Sears was less happy when Murray failed to hold a 2-0 lead in the third set, couldn’t convert a critical break point at 3-3, and then donated a decisive double fault to gift Djokovic a break. The Serb scored s 6-3 third-set victory.

Now the wheels came off for Murray. Physically spent, livid, snarling and needlessly berating himself, he was hapless—shades of when Roger Federer beat him 6-0, 6-1 in London last fall. In contrast, Djokovic—swinging freely and in the zone—smelled blood and came in for the kill. Ultimately, he won 12 of the last 13 games.

Just as he did against Stan Wawrinka in the semi, Djokovic soared to emphatically shut his foe out in the final set. The 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-0 win gave him his eighth Slam, tying Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall. Sages quickly debated whether Djokovic could now win his first French Open and dominate the way he did in 2011.

We also simply wondered how the Serb pulled off his win. His coach Boris Becker explained, “[Novak] has a ‘never say die’ attitude. He’s a real street fighter. He was hurting, and it was a very physical match for both of them, but Novak found a way. That fighting quality has to come from within, and that comes from how he was raised [as] a boy.”

During the awards ceremony, the Serbian man spoke of his Scottish foe’s future bride, and wished for the couple to have children.

But for now, Andy would like to figure a way to upgrade his vulnerable second serve; and how not to net his forehand when he’s drained and his legs are burning. He’d like to figure out how not to get so emotional; how to sustain his fight deep into matches; and, bottom line, how to beat the best hard court player in the world, the No. 1-ranked man—the foe who has won eight of their last nine matches.

But it may not happen Down Under.

After all, we know that Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer made Wimbledon their own. Even more so, Rafa “King of Clay” Nadal has dominated the French Open. Now Djokovic has put his imprint on the Aussie Open. The man who’s won five times here—including four of the last five years—might be “The Happy Warrior,” for he’s made “The Happy Slam” his own.

Even after a very physical battle, Djokovic put things in an emotional, sensitive way, when he said his win had a “deeper meaning, [and a] more intrinsic value to my life because now I’m a father and a husband. It’s the first Grand Slam title I won as a father and a husband. [I] just feel very, very proud of it … I try to stay on the right path and committed to this sport in every possible way … [I] try to use this prime time … where I’m playing and feeling the best at 27. This is why I play the sport, to win big titles and to … play for the people around me. I know how much sacrifice they put in … and I try to thank them and not take anything for granted … There are circumstances … that define these beautiful moments. Getting married and becoming a father … gave me a new energy, something that I never felt before. Right now everything has been going in such a positive
direction … I’m so grateful … I try to live these moments with all my heart.”

So when you lift that trophy, Novak was asked, do you “always think about the lady who has done so much for you—Jelena Gencic?”

“Of course,” he replied. “She’s not only there when I lift the trophy. She’s there very often in my mind. Next to …  my family … she has done the most … for my career, for my life. This trophy, as much as it’s mine, it’s hers.”