Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh
In 1966, when the singular Muhammad Ali was in full form as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, he was suddenly stripped of his crown for his stance as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war. Five long years later, after many rough bouts in court and in the ring, Ali got back to where he belonged – he reclaimed his title.
There has been no greater moment of redemption in all of individual sports history.
You can’t really compare Novak’s long awaited and widely expected Australian Open triumph tonight with the reemergence of the bigger-than-life boxer, who was both Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century and an international icon. And many still bristle when considering Novak’s objections to the Covid protocols so many others endured.
Still, for the mighty Serb and his vast fan base, his 6-3, 7-6(4), 7-6 (5) win tonight was a resounding, in-your-face reply to his lovers and haters, his fans and his foes. The man who last year had been held for six long days in a detention center and then deported was now bathed in sweet victory on Rod Laver Arena. He pointed to his head, heart and genitals and hugged his team and felt the ecstasy of redemption, and perhaps also the sweetness of revenge. Then he sat in teary solitude as he reflected on his surgical triumph over a Greek wannabe that gave him his 28th straight win in Melbourne, his tenth Aussie Open and his Rafa and Steffi equalling 22nd Slam.
This was an on-court triumph, a coming home, and a coronation all rolled into one. What a difference a year has made! Never in tennis have we seen a more quixotic, bumpy and ultimately triumphant journey than the one made by this man, who openly compares himself to a hungry wolf ascending a slope.
The Serb, who was raised while bombs fell, long has used obstacles and perceived wrongdoings as fuel for his steely will. On the Tennis Podcast, Jim Courier spoke of the adversity Djokovic regularly faces: “I don’t think anyone else could cope with the load that’s been on Djokovic…It somehow seems to make him better…Adversity stokes his fire…He’s always operated on that outsider vibe. He’s always been clamoring to be the insider…It’s a product of his childhood and growing up in a war-torn nation where…you’re used to having adversity around you and…it’s home for you.”
Of course, Australia is also a home away from home for Novak. It’s the one big tennis nation where the throng embraces the superb craftsman with his short hair, chiseled face, bendable body and unbendable will. For two weeks the gleeful chants of “Nole! Nole! Nole! Nole!” rang in Laver Arena, the packed Gardens of Melbourne Park and at Federation Square. Here was an unabashed Serbian coming out party.
All the while, a young 24-year-old seeker with long hair who’d long been waiting for glory was hoping to reach the top. Some even dared to whisper that the Athenian wonder was his generation’s answer to the near godly Roger Federer. His sweeping one-handed backhand at times seem like a heavenly bolt. His powerful forehand is a nuanced weapon. He moves with an elegant ease. His athletic grace amazes packed arenas around the world. And yes, the young Greek, who has often takes the road less traveled, was now far more than a wannabe philosopher and the ATP’s seeker-in-residence.
The man who told us, “Let your dreams be your wings” was now poised to make his dreams real. Tsitsipas, the No. 3 seed, had swept through the draw, downing the likes of Jannik Sinner and Karen Khachanov en route to the final. He was playing his best, most confident ball ever. His support team was at last settled and at ease. With a win, the man who Paul Annacone said is “the best offensive defender in the history of the game” would become the first Greek to win a Slam and to gain the No. 1 slot.
The pundits suggested that all he had to do was protect his susceptible backhand, stand in, charge the net, hit his backhand with spin and variety, outlast his foe, be brave and have belief. Never mind that he’d lost to Nole nine straight times, and on this night the wisest of Greek philosophers probably couldn’t have come up with any viable game plan to defy the Serbian warrior who was on a mission.
Locked in and on fire, Nole had lost just one set in the tourney and had adeptly flicked aside many distractions. Hamstrings and hecklers were in his rear-view mirror. Pro-Putin protestors were no longer a concern. He hadn’t lost Down Under since 2018 and was locked in and ready to call on all those assets that were there at his disposal in the most well-stocked toolbox in tennis.
Tonight Nole wasn’t in demolition mode. His win was far from a rout. Tsitsipas is hardly a slouch. The Greek fought hard and gained a set point in the second set, scored a break of serve early in the third and pushed two of the sets to tiebreaks. But in 2:56 Djokovic dismissed his foe. Whether you call it a clinic or a master class, Nole’s train was always on track.
In a raucous Davis Cup-like atmosphere of competing and often ill-timed chants, Novak was frequently heckled and his service errors were applauded. But Tsistsipas failed to step up and consistently jab his foe, let alone throw a knock-out punch. At too many big moments he shanked forehands, netted backhands or botched returns.
All the while Novak’s serve was on fire. He finished the match by winning 20 points in a row on his serve. Fit, fast, flexible and balanced, he flawlessly changed the direction of the ball. Never mind that his controversial dad Srjdan was not on hand, Djokovic’s focus never wavered. His returns landed deep. His devastating backhand did its “best in the world” thing and his (“what hammie?”) stamina defied his age. The 35-year-old, who has never lost in an Aussie Open semi or final, was opportunistic and steely at crunch time. “At these big moments, he’s so frugal with his errors,” noted AO Radio. “There is a public holiday when he gives one away.”
And when, on his fourth championship point, Nole hit yet another deep, brilliant forehand to capture the match, the well-deserved lovefest began. Broadcaster Mark Hlawaty said, “he’s an absolute immortal…the greatest of the great.”
Tournament Director Craig Tiley noted, “The king of Melbourne Park is back.” Stefanos thanked Nole, who has won five of the last seven Slams he’s played, for bringing the best out in himself and for pushing the sport so far.
For his part, Nole said his triumph was “the best win of my career, considering the circumstances.” He referred to the small nations of Serbia and Greece and told kids there, “Dare to dream, because everything is possible. Don’t let anybody take away the dream. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from…[and] the more disadvantaged childhood you have – the more difficulties and more challenges you have the stronger you become.”
Novak may once have been kicked out the US Open for bopping a ball at an ump, he may have failed to win the Calendar Slam in 2021, he was deported from Australia – but last year’s Wimbledon champion now has his tenth Australian Open trophy, and, despite all the tourneys he’s missed, he incredibly leapt from No. 5 to surpass Carlos Alcaraz as the No. 1 player. With his 22 Slams, and many other notable records Novak is superbly positioned in the ever evolving GOAT conversation.
In other words, the prodigal son has come home. Novak Djokovic, who was forged by war, now has peace of mind. He’s again the proud, unapologetic alpha wolf who stands atop the tennis mountain.