Shock – pure shock. That’s what hit Melbourne tonight.
In a tense battle for the Aussie title, the youngest member of the Big 3 was on fire. Aussie Open Radio said, “Djokovic started out at a million miles an hour…The intensity he has brought inspires everyone. This is champagne tennis, and Thiem has got to get that cork back in the bottle. Can Novak maintain this level for two hours?”
Novak blasted his way to a 6-4 first set-win in 54 minutes. Thiem, despite all his big strokes, was hard put to even get a ball beyond Novak. The Austrian, who had just beaten Rafa and Alexander Zverev, was put on the defensive. Plus a key Thiem weapon, his backhand down the line, was misfiring.
But the athletic Austrian, who had fired his co-coach Thomas Muster after the second round, now tried to muster all he had. He broke at 1-1 in the second set. The packed Melbourne house knew it would be a long night.
With Djokovic serving at 4-4 in the second set against Thiem, the Laver Arena crowd sensed the Serb would roll. Why not? He’d won two of the last four Slams and 42 of his last 44 Slam matches. The player of the decade, the best hard court player ever and the cat-like man who probably would end up with more Slams than anyone else was displaying his usual arsenal. Fabulous movement, pivot-and-blast groundies, a return of serve that punishes, and sublime defense. No one bends so low or has so much torque. He’s rubbery yet strong; he somehow manages to slide on concrete.
Then Novak took too long. The unsparing French ump, Damien Dumusois, called Novak on one and then a second time delay. The sky fell. The man who climbs mountains for inspiration fell off a cliff. A forehand error quickly gave Thiem the break. As he walked by the ump, Novak tapped the Frenchman’s shoes and said, “Great job, especially on the second one. You’ve made yourself famous.”
Thiem knew he had his opening to fame. He collected six games in a row. The Serb’s energy dipped. He seemed drained. Thiem took full advantage of the Novak’s free fall to go up two sets to one. It looked like there was no way for Nole. Dominic might just manage to beat both Rafa and Novak in the same tournament and become the first new Grand Slam winner since Marin Cilic in 2014.
Then, in the fourth set at 3-4, Thiem blinked. He missed an easy volley, he double faulted and hit a forehand long to give Djokovic a 5-3 lead. Soon tennis would have its third straight men’s Slam to go five sets. And order would be restored.
Experience matters. The Big Three mystique – an intangible like no other in tennis – would surely kick in. Plus Djokovic hadn’t lost yet this year in Australia. And he’d never come up short in any of his seven Melbourne finals.
And now it was the 26-year-old Thiem who showed his fatigue. Was it more physical or mental? One of his groundies after another went awry, and he was broken to go down 2-1.
Dominic soon had a chance to come back. But on two vital fifth-set break points, one of the best backhands in the game was errant. Inexplicably, as Chris Fowler observed, Novak went “from vulnerable to victorious.” For the first time in his career he came back from a two-set deficit to win a Slam. A gritty 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win was his.
Then again, great champions find a way. Winning becomes familiar, even a habit. You have so much to call on and you tap into everything. Confidence is something you can’t buy. Billie Jean King had it right: “Pressure is a privilege.” Novak had a hard, war-torn childhood – bombs fell. He left his home to train. He told IT that his childhood days amidst war and waiting in line for food was what gave him strength. Novak eventually redefined how hard court tennis could be played. Tonight, he redefined what seemed to be a lost match.
The Big Three have won 52 of the last 57 Slams and 14 of the last 15 Aussie Opens. If they were a business, there would be loud howls: “Break up this monopoly! It’s not fair!”
The reign of the Big Three is – along with the the creation of Open tennis in 1968 and the ATP in 1973, the Battle of the Sexes and the emergence of the Williams sisters – easily one of the top five biggest stories in tennis history. Now the last eight Slams have been won by Nole or Rafa and the Big 3 have won the last 14 Slams. Novak now has 17 Slams and the Serb told the media that he wants to be “the historic No. 1.”
In the trophy ceremony, Djokovic stepped up wearing a No. 8 on his jacket to honor his close friend Kobe Bryant. This was Novak’s eighth Aussie title. Seventeen adds up to eight. This was the 108th Aussie Open and the 208th Slam of the Open era.
Novak then gave the most touching tennis speech since Andre Agassi’s US Open farewell address. At a time of global heartbreak, loss and strife, he put sports and trauma in a caring context. He noted, “As Dominic was saying, there were some devastating things at the start of 2020. Huge bush fires here in Australia, conflicts in some parts of the world with people dying every day. Obviously, Kobe Bryant, one person that I considered close to me and who was a mentor, passed away.
“This is a reminder to all of us that we should stick together more than ever. Being with our families, staying close to the people that love you and care about you…There are more important things in life [than tennis] and it’s important to be conscious and humble about things that are happening around you.”
What happened around us tonight in Melbourne Park was the triumph of a great, thoughtful champion who somehow refused to lose, and reminded us why he’s a member of the greatest sporting trio in history.