Australian Earthquake – Sinner Ascends

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Bill Simons

Has any other athlete had more of a laser focus on records than Novak Djokovic?

We don’t think so.

Others say they want to play for the joy of the game or just prove what they can do. Not Nole.

The marks he’s made, 24 Slams, 10 Aussie Opens, 409 weeks at No. 1 and about a kabillion more, astound. Tennis savants assured us that the man who’d won three of the last four Slams he’d played, the domineering GOAT who fearlessly told us his goal was to win all four Slams this year, plus the Olympic gold would win his 33rd straight match in Melbourne.

Yes, Novak is 36. And yes, it’s best not to mess with Father Time. Plus, Djokovic had struggled early in the tourney – long matches, a lingering cold and a pesky wrist injury.

More to the point, a generation of young players was eager to dethrone the king. Carlos Alcaraz did it at Wimbledon, and a ex-skier named Jannik Sinner beat the Serb in two of the three times they met in huge matches in the fall.

Then in Melbourne, Jannik, who fired his longtime coach to put Darren Cahill in his corner, showed why so many think he’s bound to be the next great thing in the game. In the tourney Sinner was the only player not to drop a set – or even face a set point. And his draw was a headache. Sinner had to subdue No. 15 seed Karen Khachanov and No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev to reach the semifinals.

But that Serbian fellow named Djokovic had never lost in the ten Aussie semis he’d played and he had a 4-2 winning record against Sinner. Sure, Novak lost a couple of three-set matches to the 22-year-old. But everyone knows that the hardest thing to do in tennis is beat Novak in five sets on a hard court, especially in Melbourne Park.

“He’s absurd – he’s not human,” claimed Nick Kyrgios. When you are playing him, “you want to die,” said Alcaraz. Patrick McEnroe noted, “Novak’s had the ability to force other players to show what they have to do. He’s so well rounded. He can do everything.”

But not tonight. In a shocking Australian Open that gave us stunning upsets, mighty marathons, tiebreaks that will long be remembered, fresh-faced teens and a rising tennis queen from China, the king of tennis came out and played like a pauper.

Nole was not okay. Inexplicably, the alpha male of tennis came out flat and adrift. His forehands were errant and he double faulted. Even the best two-handed backhand in tennis history was unhappy. He littered the arena with a storm of errors.

His usually feared return was tepid. We wondered, “Where’s this guy’s ferocity?” His emotions seemed muted. His usual quick-twitch reflexes didn’t fire. The steeliest warrior in the game seemed wobbly. AO Radio dared to say that one of his forehands seemed lazy. “Novak’s not playing like Djokovic,” said one observer.

Sinner showed little respect for his elder. Forget the mantra of too many young players: “Oh, it’s just such an honor to be on the same court as the GOAT.”

Consistently playing within himself, Jannik effortlessly glided from corner to corner and didn’t try to outblast Nole. Perhaps the cleanest hitter in the game bent low and ran Novak from corner to corner. Sinner had said his game plan was to “give 100% fight and control the controllables.”

Today it seemed the redhead, who played free and was in the zone, controlled everything, as he raced to a shocking 6-1 first-set win.

As Rod Laver looked on, Novak’s coach Goran Ivanisivic seemed glum, and the silent Serbians in the stands couldn’t believe their eyes. Were the considerable breezes in Melbourne the winds of generational change?

But no worries – there’s no other player who weathers storms as well as Nole. Who else reads his foes so adeptly, and is such a savvy game manager? Plus, he’d come back eight times in majors from being two sets down, including last summer against Jannik at Wimbledon.

Djokovic certainly would unleash a counterattack. But, incredibly, it didn’t really happen. The lanky, long-legged German-speaking Italian maintained the upper hand and sprinted to a 6-2 second-set win.

John McEnroe asked, “Will the real Novak Djokovic please stand up?” At last Novak began to hit out. And as Sinner’s first serve diminished, Novak’s movement improved, his aggression rose, and at last he seemed engaged.

But in the third-set tiebreak Sinner gained a match point, just a point from reaching his first ever Slam final. The arena was silent. But on the edge of glory, Jannik tamely netted a nervous forehand. Novak soon took full advantage.

A Sinner backhand error gave the Serb the third-set tiebreak, 8-6. Nole looked up to the stands and seemed to say, “Don’t count me out.” Kyrgios claimed, “This is exactly where Novak wants to be. This is the obsession he loves.”

The Serb continued his counterattack. On serve in the fourth game of the fourth set, Nole was up 40-0 – on cruise control. But Sinner hit an inspired sharply angled crosscourt forehand flick and broke to go up 3-1.

Jannik then held his nerve and held his serve. Almost an hour after he’d had his first match point, he again was poised to reach his first Slam final. He then confidently blasted a winner to the open court that opened a whole new chapter.

“It’s a stand and deliver moment for Sinner…He’s done what nobody’s ever done before. He’s beaten Novak Djokovic in the semifinal of the Australian Open…He stood toe to toe with Novak. It’s Sinner’s day,” said AO Radio.

Novak fell 6-1, 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-3 to suffer his first Melbourne loss in six years, his second loss in three Slams and his third loss to Jannik in two months. The record-conscious warrior, who failed to break Margaret Court’s mark of 24 Slam wins, said his loss was not the beginning of the end. Still he was candid about his play, saying “He outplayed me completely today. I was shocked with my level in a bad way. There was not much I was doing right in the first two sets. This is one of the worst Grand Slam matches I’ve ever played.”

Sinner, who has won nine of the last ten matches he’s played against top ten opponents, said he’d learned a lot from his Wimbledon loss to Novak, where he fell after being up by two sets. “It’s all part of the process,” he said.

And what a process it’s been. Tonight there was an earthquake. A skinny redhead shifted the tectonic plates of the tennis landscape. The king has fallen – all hail the rising prince.

Also reporting: Vinay Venkatesh

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