For the fourth time in five years, it’s the Djoker who laughs last in Melbourne. His four-set besting of Andy Murray was Grand Slam title number eight, and his fifth Down Under (a record in the open era). While those two iconic hall-of-famers, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both lost early, Djokovic cut a swathe through his section of the draw, straight-setting Fernando Verdasco – a dangerous floater in the first week of Slams – and cuffing aside 6 ft 5 in Milos Raonic, a player who thunders down serves akin to the hammer of Thor. Only defending champ Stan Wawrinka, in the semifinal, could take Nole the distance, before collapsing in a blancmange-esque final set, losing it 6-0.
There is no one so fitted as Djokovic to playing tennis in this era, one of slow courts, poly strings and two-handed backhands. Since the 1990s, when Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and Stefan Edberg serve-and-volleyed their way to multiple Slams, the game has moved backwards to the baseline, rewarding consistency and calculated risks. It is Djokovic – defined by a lack of weaknesses, rather than any particular strength – who stands out, the most gifted baseliner in a crowded field of gifted baseliners.
So it was to prove in the final against a resurgent Murray. The Scot, in beating Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Tomáš Berdych, had tapped his richest vein of form since undergoing back surgery in September 2013. But Djokovic is a different and more difficult opponent. While Murray has downed him in two major finals (US Open ’12 and Wimbledon ‘13), both are played on faster surfaces. On a slower court, Andy is at a competitive disadvantage to Novak, his forehand a tad less reliable, his footspeed slightly slower. He’s a counter-puncher by trade, a tactician who uses his opponent’s pace against him, rather than generating his own. In a fair fight on a slow hardcourt in Melbourne, Djokovic’s more aggressive playing style has the edge. The longer they fence and parry from the baseline, the more likely Nole is to win.
And win he did, thanks in part to a spectacular implosion on the other side of the net. After failing to take a break point at 3-3 in the third set, Murray rapidly lost the next nine games, and with them the match (and his temper: after a final, regretful backhand into the net, Murray sat down and obliterated the racquet in question, and two others for good measure). But he can surely derive satisfaction in reaching the final – a result which hardly seemed likely at the World Tour Finals two months ago, where he was embarrassed by Roger Federer at the round-robin stage, 6-0, 6-1.
Meanwhile, with Rod Laver watching on in the stadium that bears his name, Djokovic could yet emulate the Aussie Great and win all four Grand Slams in a single year. But there’s a roadblock en route, and it’s a hefty one. Beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open (the only major trophy Djokovic hasn’t hoisted) might be the toughest ‘ask’ in all sport. Like Federer before him, Djokovic has lost to Nadal every time they’ve met in Paris, his hopes routinely ground into red dust by the Mallorcan’s loopy topspin and inexhaustible court coverage. In fact, the only player to beat Nadal in Roland Garros is Robin Soderling in 2009, and he lost to Nadal the following year. And he lost the year after, before all but retiring from the sport with mononucleosis.
If Djokovic were to win the French Open and join an elite band of seven players who’ve achieved the Career Grand Slam – including Federer and Nadal – it would be only fitting. Where Rafa is the immovable object, and Roger the irresistible force, Novak is the perfect halfway house, part-defender, part-attacker. He is the best-balanced tennis player there has ever been, a rubber man who can retrieve any ball, before turning the point around and winning it. Underneath the jocular, easy-going exterior is a man who is thoughtful in five languages off the court, and a cold-eyed competitor on it. He has the belief that any tough match – save perhaps for Nadal at Roland Garros – can eventually be twisted to his will. His trophy cabinet not yet be as garlanded as his two chief rivals, but make no mistake. Djokovic is an all-time-great in waiting. If he hasn’t arrived already.