- Alix Ramsay

What are the lessons to take after Djokovic ruled in Melbourne

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on the podium during the trophy presentation at the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Is Djokovic ready to take over the world?


He has done it before and after his performance in the Australian Open final, no one would question that he could do it again.

His record setting seventh title in Melbourne brought him his third consecutive Grand Slam title. It was the third time in his career that he had won three in a row it made history – he was the first man ever to be so devastatingly consistent.

 The last time he left Melbourne with his sights set on Roland Garros and the non-calendar Grand Slam, the pressure was building. Starting from the Wimbledon final of 2012, he reached the final of 13 of 17 major championships and won seven of them. In the last year and a half of that run, he won five of six Grand Slam finals. There was no one to match him but the mental and physical effort to be so good and to stay so far ahead was exhausting.

There was also the small matter of actually winning in Paris: he had never done that before and it was his last remaining item on his bucket list. And when he did win, beating Andy Murray in four sets, he was utterly spent.

Coming into the same home straight this time around, he has two major advantages over the player of 2016: he knows what it feels like to be in this position and he has had a couple of years to reignite the passions of old.



 

The two seasons between 2016 and 2018 that he took to recover from a chronic elbow injury and reset his targets have made Djokovic Mark II even stronger, even more confident and even more unbeatable.

He is now five trophies behind Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam wins and, clearly, he sees that record as his main goal.

“I am aware that making history of the sport that I truly love is something special,” he said sitting beside the Australian silverware. “I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have mental, physical, emotional, so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come, and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger's record. It's still far away.”

It may be far away at the moment but in his current form it is more than reachable.

Novak Djokovic reaction at the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Can Djokovic play any better?


It is an impossible question to answer. Djokovic thrives in the Rod Laver Arena – the surface suits him, the atmosphere suits him, the timing of the tournament suits him; there is nothing not to love about the place for the seven-time champion. He is as at home in Melbourne Park as Rafael Nadal is at Roland Garros and Federer is at Wimbledon.

To take him away from Australia hardly moves him out of his comfort zone but facing his fiercest rivals in their stadium of choice may give them a percentage point or two more to shore up their defences. Even so, the standard he set in the first major championship of the year was eye-wateringly good.

In the two hours and four minutes it took him to dismiss Nadal, Djokovic made nine unforced errors. He faced one break point (and saved it, naturally). He hit 34 winners. He was playing near flawless tennis and there was nothing Nadal could do to stop him.

“It's quite pleasantly surprising to myself,” Djokovic said, “even though I always believe I can play this way, visualise myself playing this way. At this level, under the circumstances, it was truly a perfect match.”




Will the future be decided at Roland Garros?


The true test for Djokovic will come in Paris. Nadal will be chasing his 12th trophy there and, if he gets it, he will be two Grand slam trophies behind Federer on the leader board.

If Djokovic wins his second Roland Garros trophy, he could be on his way to the Grand Slam proper – all four majors won in the same year. To do that would involve reaching another milestone in his career by winning the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back (Nadal did it in 2008 and 2010 and Federer did it in 2009) but nothing seems beyond the Serb at the moment.

Rafael Nadal glimbing on the podium at the Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
What can Rafa do next?


For a man who had just taken the worst beating of his career in a major final (in his seven previous Grand Slam final defeats he had won at least one set), Nadal seemed in a remarkably good mood.

He had not dropped a set in the first six rounds of the tournament, he was attacking at will and serving well. This was all the more amazing given that it he had not played since the US Open almost five months before. Knee problems stopped him in New York and an abdominal strain stopped his comeback in Bercy. That was followed by ankle surgery at the end of the season and, just when he thought he was fit and raring to go, a thigh strain stopped him playing in Brisbane.

To have played so well from a standing start was a cause for optimism, then. And with the clay court season just a couple of months away, Nadal was keen to get to work.




“I have been lot of months without having the chance to practice, without having the chance to compete,” Nadal said after the final. “And have been two positive weeks. The only thing probably that I need is time and more matches.

“He played better than what probably he played during the rest of the tournament. Being honest, I saw him the tournament more or less. He probably played the best match so far. Playing that well, is so difficult for everybody, when he plays that level.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic posing before the 2019 Australian Open final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
If Djokovic plays Nadal in the Roland Garros final, who will win?


It is the $64,000 question.

Nadal has never lost in Paris when he has been mentally and physically fit. He was struggling with a knee injury when he lost to Robin Soderling in 2009, a wrist injury forced him to pull out after two matches in 2016 while the year before – when he lost to Djokovic in the quarter-finals – he was a shadow of his usual self as he struggled with a lack of confidence and motivation.

Djokovic, though, can play on any surface. Eight of his 32 Masters 1000 titles have been won on clay, he has reached four Roland Garros finals (and won one of them) – the red dirt of Paris holds no fear for him. And he is the best defender in the business: whatever Nadal throws at him, he has the ability to soak up the pressure and turn that defence into attack.



And yet it is hard to argue with 11 Roland Garros titles. With 24 clay court Masters 1000 titles. With 57 clay court titles in all.

As Stefanos Tsitsipas put it having lost a tight match to Nadal on a hard court in Toronto and then having been thrashed by the Spaniard on clay: “I feel like he's on completely another level on clay than on hard.”

And yet Djokovic is on a completely different level to anyone else after Melbourne.

Roll on Roland Garros.