MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic did what he always does.
Djokovic, the veteran from Serbia ranked No. 1 in the world, defeated the fourth-ranked Daniil Medvedev of Russia, 7-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the Australian Open men’s singles final Sunday night.
The victory gave Djokovic his ninth Australian Open singles championship, a tournament record on the men’s side, and the 18th Grand Slam title of his career. Djokovic has made nine Australian Open finals and won each time, including in the last three years.
With this Grand Slam championship, Djokovic is now just two behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the race to achieve the most major men’s singles titles in a career. Djokovic, 33, is a year younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer, who will soon begin his comeback from two surgeries on his right knee, though it remains to be seen whether he will be a championship contender or embarking on a farewell tour.
Grand Slam titles are the first measuring stick in any discussion of who is the greatest player of the modern and professional era of tennis, also known as the Open era, which began in 1968.
This year’s tournament will be remembered as one of Djokovic’s longest and toughest journeys to the championship.
First, quarantine restrictions wreaked havoc on preparations for the Open, the year’s first Grand Slam event. Then an injured abdominal muscle nearly forced Djokovic out of the tournament. Taylor Fritz, the 27th seed, stretched him to five sets in the third round, and Djokovic played a four-set match with two tiebreakers in the quarterfinals against Alexander Zverev, the rising star from Germany ranked seventh on the ATP Tour.
Yet Djokovic met all those challenges. He recovered more quickly from his abdominal injury than he expected, then vanquished the hottest player in tennis. Medvedev rode a 20-match winning streak into battle Sunday night. Attempting to place a little more pressure on his challenger, Djokovic called Medvedev “the man to beat” in the tournament.
In reality though, few doubted Djokovic’s edge. He entered the match as the two-time defending champion and with a well-earned aura of invincibility at Rod Laver Arena in the late rounds.
Rod Laver Arena sits a few hundred yards from the Yarra River, and just a few miles from Port Phillip Bay. When evening comes and the lights turn on, gulls flock to the rafters and squawk through the night. With Djokovic playing so many of his matches at night here, it becomes difficult not to imagine those birds as his personal vultures, bearing witness as he slays his latest victim.
The reasons for Djokovic’s dominance here are both physical and psychological. The final always takes place at night. Those night matches that the birds come for, along with legions of Serbs who scream the “Olé, olé, olé, olé,” chant when their favorite son most needs it, are often played in cooler temperatures than those that take place during the warm, dry days of the Australian summer. Heat has always tended to melt Djokovic. A cool evening, like the one on which he met Medvedev, is his favorite playing partner.
Also, players say the shift in the climate completely changes the conditions of the court. Balls stop popping off the ground, keeping so many of Djokovic’s hard, flat groundstrokes below his opponent’s knees and out of their strike zones. What looks like a simple backhand is anything but, especially when the player hitting the original shot has never lost the ultimate match here, and too often the opponent’s counter ends up wide, long or in the middle of the net.
They come nearly every year now, this new crop of challengers who so desperately want to begin their time in the sun, to win the championships that everyone in the game values most and beat the three players considered the best to ever play in the biggest moments. Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, others will surely follow. And each year, they fall short, making the task seem all that more impossible.
Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — the so-called Big Three of men’s tennis — have simply refused to give way to the next generation of players, who have been unable for years to topple them on the biggest stages. Not one of them has ever lost a final to a player currently younger than 30.
Thiem of Austria came close, outplaying Djokovic for long stretches in last year’s Australian Open final before Djokovic prevailed in five sets. That match appeared to hint at a shrinking gap between the veterans and the young players trying to nip at their heels.
But as Djokovic lifted the trophy once more in Melbourne on Sunday night, he made it clear that he had no intention of giving up ownership of the crown he claims as his own and the court he calls his second backyard anytime soon.
Before the final, Lleyton Hewitt, a former world No. 1 and a two-time Grand Slam champion in the 2000s, said Medvedev was going to need to create a moment, perhaps a few of them, when he could believe that he could beat Djokovic on this night, on this court.
Hewitt had one of those when he played his first Grand Slam final as a heavy underdog against Pete Sampras at the 2001 United States Open. He won the first set tiebreaker and thought he might actually be able to win the match. And he did.
The first test came early for Medvedev, after Djokovic broke him in his first service game and cruised to a 3-0 lead. But a game later, Medvedev outclassed Djokovic on a 28-shot rally that had both players sliding from sideline to sideline to get his first chance to break Djokovic’s serve. Minutes later it was 3-3. Game on.
They stayed on serve for the next five games and the set appeared headed for a tiebreaker, but the moment of truth for Medvedev arrived sooner. Serving at 5-6 and down a point, he sent a forehand wide with Djokovic pushing to the net, and caught a bad break as what could have been the winning shot on the next point ticked the top of the net cord and gave Djokovic a sitter for an easy passing shot.
Just like that, triple set point. Big serves saved the first two, but then Medvedev sent a forehand into the net. The big hill that no one in Medvedev’s generation has been able to summit suddenly seemed that much higher.
“It’s just so tough to beat these guys over five sets,” Hewitt said. “You can win a couple sets off them and get some wins over them during the year, but it’s different when it comes to a Grand Slam.”
After prevailing in that first set, Djokovic shifted from a steady run into a sprint. He lost his serve the next game, but broke Medvedev three times in the second set and had him swatting the ground with his racket and shrugging his shoulders at his coach, as if to say, there is nothing I can do.
On match point, Djokovic rose for a lob, stretched and reached and whipped one last winner past Medvedev. He collapsed on the court but rose quickly, pumping his arms at his box and the crowd. The reign goes on, for Djokovic and for the Big Three.