Controversy, What Controversy? – Novak Collects Aussie Open

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Bill Simons

“His quest to be the best is relentless.” – Todd Woodbridge

As Novak Djokovic grew up, bombs fell. The boy was raised amidst the fury of war. Yes, he’s sought spiritual refuge at small Buddhist temples, atop modest French mountains, in Bosnian caves and at the Grand Canyon. He became gluten-free and sought the freedom of serenity through meditation. That’s truly admirable, but struggle, battle, conflict and controversy are also at the core of this man. He told us, “I tend to complicate my life.” 

As he travels the world, winning tennis matches, gaining fans and collecting millions, he migrates from one edgy controversy to another, defending problematic figures, creating rebel player organizations, backing miracle cures, hosting a COVID spreader, questioning COVID restrictions, and stirring assorted debates. Last week he said he didn’t respect Nick Kyrgios off court. The Aussie shot back: “Someone that’s partying with his shirt off during a global pandemic…That’s as bad as it gets for me. Djokovic is a strange cat.”

Commentator Nicolas Pereira noted, “This guy thrives on conflict. Unfortunately he had a rough childhood and I think that helped him, particularly at this stage. He feels everybody is against him. The more people are against him, the more people beat on him, the more he gets energized by it. Yes, he’s had difficulties. Here, he’s had a rocky road to the semis, winning matches in four and five sets…but this is his tournament.” 

In New York, Novak suffered a shock default when he bashed a ball at a lineswoman. History winced. In Australia, he offered significant blowback against protocols and sparked speculation about an abdominal tear injury. When he stepped out tonight to try to win his ninth Aussie Open title, Nole watchers wondered whether the controversies become a motivating facto when he stepped out to face the hottest player on the circuit. 

After all, world No. 4 Daniil Medvedev was on fire. The Russian had not only won 20 straight matches, incredibly, 12 of them were over top ten players. Clearly Medvedev was the hot hand. He was lean and fleet, and had beaten Djokovic three of the last four times they’d played. But Daniil was now in the lion’s den – Rod Laver Arena. Novak had won a record eight times here. He’d never lost a final and was 41-0 when he was the No. 1 seed. 

But the winds of change have been blowing. Federer is still sidelined. Rafa suffered a shock upset to a hungry Greek kid, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Novak seemed vulnerable. Memories of being kicked out of New York lingered. Nadal had pummeled him in the French Open final. To some his injury remained a question mark. Nole had lost five sets en route to the final – clearly he was on edge. The other night, after he smashed a racket, he explained, “You go through inner battles. I have my own demons that I fight with. Everyone has their own way of dealing with that. It’s just an accumulation of things that happen in big moments. I just kind of let it go. Poor racquet.” 

Tonight in the final, Nole let it go. And there was just one thing to say: “Poor Daniil.” The sheriff was back in town. Novak sprinted to a 3-0 first-set lead, but Daniil broke back. Yet Djokovic is 11-0 against top ten players in Australia. This was his 28th Slam final and only Medvedev’s second. Plus Djokovic had thrown down the gauntlet. He told Eurosport, “Everyone talks about the new generation coming and taking over us, but realistically that isn’t happening still. We can talk about it all day but with all my respect to the other guys, they still have a lot of work to do. I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them. I’m going to make them work their ass off for that.”

Deep into the tight first set, Medvedev faltered badly – his level dropped. The man who Brad Gilbert said, “has forgotten how to lose” suddenly forgot how to win. His groundie errors gave Nole a flash break of serve. The first set went to the Serb 7-5.

Controlling the middle of the court, stepping in and putting his lanky foe on the run to
the far corners of the court, Novak grabbed the match by the throat. His improved serve, his tennis IQ, his unshakable calm, 18 years of experience and his unwavering will were all on display. The rout was on. The Russian mounted a brief counterattack in the third set, but the night was Nole’s. 

“Nerves can tire you out,” observed John McEnroe. “So can Djokovic,” replied his brother Patrick. Locked in, at one point Djokovic won 10 of 13 games. He made the Russian suffer. Novak showed off his improved serve, winning 73% of his first service points. He hit down the middle and forced Daniil to make his own offense. Novak dominated at net and converted 7 of his 11 breakpoint chances. Medvedev all but vanished. He was left to shrug his shoulders, gesture to his box, bite his nails, smash his Technifibre racket and accept his fate. During his 1:53 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 loss, he had no answers.

Then again, few have had answers to the dominance of Nole, Roger and Rafa. The Big Three have won 58 of the last 70 Slams and have been No. 1 for 827 of the last 868 weeks. Medvedev himself conceded the Big Three “are just better than the other tennis players. I’m not shy to say this. It’s just truth.”

In Melbourne this year, many a champion seeking history fell short. Rafa didn’t claim a record 21st Slam. Serena didn’t win her 24th. No. 1 seed Ash Barty’s hopes were dashed – she failed to become the first Aussie woman to win the Happy Slam since 1978.

But tonight there was no controversy. The man who thrives on conflict left Laver Arena with history in his hands. The No. 1 in the world, the best hard court player in history and perhaps the best player ever, left town with a record ninth Aussie crown and secured the mark for most weeks at No. 1: 311. “Today was just a masterpiece…a beautiful performance,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “He’s a perfectionist…I know what kind of emotions and pain he went through in the last week…He overcame the pain, he overcame everything…He showed again how strong and tough he is in the head and proved everybody wrong.”

True, Novak is a man who makes his life complicated. But tonight was not complicated. He won decisively. He so often does.

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