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Australian Open

Novak Djokovic does it for the first time — again

Matt Zemek

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Pierre Lahalle/Presse Sports via USA TODAY Sports

It is fascinating to be on #TennisTwitter during the biggest matches of the Golden Era of men’s professional tennis.

I have been on #TennisTwitter since the spring of 2009. My first major tournament on #TennisTwitter was the 2009 Roland Garros event, a seismic occurrence due to the fact that Rafael Nadal lost and Roger Federer won.

Nearly 11 years later, all of us who have shared the journey in the world’s great online sports bar — Twitter — can see how fans and anti-fans, the sympathetic and antagonistic commentators, the quiet voices and the loud ones, react to the ebb and flow of a huge match.

It never ceases to amaze me how much the fans of each Big 3 player are critical of their own favorite, not just the other two.

Novak Djokovic got criticized a lot on Sunday during his Australian Open final against Dominic Thiem. “STOP PUSHING!”, I saw from many pro-Nole Twitter accounts. Resignation and exasperation were voiced abundantly in the second and third sets, when Thiem took a two-sets-to-one lead and approached his hoped-for moment of crowning glory.

The Big 3 have dominated men’s tennis as no other players have, and yet, when each of them — Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer — are going through a bad patch, the dump-truck of frustration unloaded on them by their own fans is a sight to behold.

You’d think these players have the resume or legacy of Feliciano Lopez, not a player who has won more major championships than Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, and the rest of tennis icons from past eras of the men’s game.

The in-the-moment frustrations expressed by fans of the Big 3 can distort our perceptions of what it means to take part in elite, cutthroat, athletic competition. This stuff IS hard. It INVOLVES periods of struggle.

It is not a linear journey to nirvana or Valhalla.

It WILL have bumps in the road most of the time (unlike Djokovic’s 2019 Australian Open, which was so much smoother and was only briefly thrown into doubt for about an hour by Daniil Medvedev in the fourth round).

Tennis fans (at least online fans — maybe non-online fans are different, but I don’t know) are so often focused on in-the-moment emotions that they lose sight of the larger reality and the longer journey. Five-set championship tennis isn’t a sprint or a short story. It is a long-distance race, a novel with all sorts of plot twists if the battle is close, as it was between Djokovic and Thiem.

Players in close, prolonged major-tournament men’s finals will reveal many different faces and display many responses across the performance-based spectrum. This isn’t an act. It isn’t staged — theatrical, yes, but not pre-planned.

The reactions we see from players in these twisting, turning, five-set adventures — and we have now had three straight five-set men’s finals in major tournaments after Sunday night in Melbourne — are organic.

This doesn’t make the reactions inherently noble or inherently appalling. It merely means they come from a natural place. We all have our own coping strategies for high-stress situations; so do the Big 3. This doesn’t mean the strategies will always work, but it does mean that when pressed against a wall, they will probably turn in a particular direction to regain balance.

With this prelude in mind, I go back to #TennisTwitter, but not to the fans of Novak Djokovic who lamented his supposed “pushing” against Dominic Thiem. For this next reference, I will cite the fact that I received a few tweets late in the third set expressing the belief that Djokovic was going to lose.

One of the particular reasons given for Djokovic not being able to bounce back: He had never come back from a two-sets-to-one deficit in an Australian Open final.

When we learn about certain facts or statistics, do we say to ourselves, “Now THAT is an indicator of how unlikely something is, or is going to be?” Sometimes that can be a fair answer.

A good example: The Big 3 haven’t failed to win a major tournament since the 2016 U.S. Open. One would reasonably say that one has to see an outsider win before picking an outsider to win.

This Djokovic fact, on the other hand, doesn’t pass the same test. It’s an accident or oddity of history that he hadn’t previously come back from two sets to one down to win an Australian Open final. He had been leading after three sets on a regular basis, for one thing!

Also, the times Djokovic usually trailed after three sets came primarily before his 2015 masterclass of a season, the 2012-2014 period in which he did struggle in major finals, a la Ivan Lendl.

This is not the kind of fact (the failure to come back from 2-1 down in sets in a major final) which offers convincing proof of an athlete’s inability to cross a given threshold.

Last year should have taught us as much.

It had been 71 years since a Wimbledon men’s final was won by a player who had saved championship points against him. Djokovic ended that 71-year span against Roger Federer.

It is in the nature of Novak Djokovic to do great things for the first time. It is in the nature of greatness to forge achievements for the first time.

Novak Djokovic won his eighth Australian Open, yes, but he also did something in an Australian Open final he had not done before.

It is in the NATURE of iconic players to do these things, not a surprise.

I hope, as the story of this Golden Era of men’s tennis continues, we can understand that… regardless of how much tennis fan bases on Twitter sometimes treat their favorite players as incompetent, bumbling fools.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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